As the holiday season ends (unless you are an Orthodox Christian, in which case it ends on Jan. 6th) It becomes time to eat the last latke and wave goodbye to Santa. I love the fact that I can celebrate these holidays wherever I am in the world, though not in exactly the same way.
Not too long before I flew to Barcelona in November, a friend told me about the Catalan tradition of “Caga Tio”, or Tio de Nadal. Caga Tio literally translated means “Uncle Shit” (or Uncle Poop, for the PG version.) Apparently, instead of a jolly bearded fat man bringing presents down the chimney, the Catalans have a painted log in the fireplace that “shits” out presents.
Caga Tio has a little painted face, little stick legs, and a little red blanket to keep him warm. Come Christmas, the children of Catalonia hit him with sticks to make him shit out presents. When Caga Tio is done shitting presents, he shits a herring. The children sing a song while doing this. Translated, it goes something like this:
Shit turrón [a Catalan candy], hazelnuts and cottage cheese,
if you don’t shit well,
I’ll hit you with a stick,
Caga Tio has it rough. Can you imagine the pressure? you have to shit out presents, potentially with hard corners or weird shapes, and while you are trying to concentrate on that, a bunch of screaming kids are hitting you with sticks. I’d shit a herring early on purpose just to teach them a lesson. But then they still might hit me with sticks….
During Christmas, Catalans also traditionally sell these figurines called “Caganers” which are little statues of people defecating. I mean, really defecating-squatting, pants down, with a neat coil of feces below the buttocks. The most popular Caganers are those of famous people. When I was in Barcelona it was a bit early for Caganers but I did see a Muammar Quaddafi Caganer, a Vladimir Putin Caganer, a Barak Obama Caganer, a Kate Middleton Caganer and a Madonna Caganer. I also snapped this photo of a Caga Tio.
I still love Santa, but I have a lot of respect and affection for Caga Tio. What I don’t have a lot of affection for is what goes on in Austria and The Netherlands. Hailing from The Netherlands (and parts of Belgium), let me introduce you to Zwarte Piet, otherwise known as Black Peter.
A traditional figure in Netherlands/Belgian folklore, Black Peter is Santa (or “Sinterklass”)’s servant. Other myths state that Sinterklaas used to be accompanied on Christmas by the Devil. When Sinterklaas triumphed over the Devil, the Devil became his slave….known as Black Peter. As part of Christmas in the Netherlands and in Belgium there are all these parades with people dressed up as Zweite Piet, wearing blackface and a renaissance page outfit, following behind Santa. Recently, there has been media concern that Zwarte Piet is a racist figure (no duh) and efforts have been made to change the tradition, like having Piet’s face be painted all different colors (except for black), or scratching the Zwarte Piet character from the celebration. These measures were met with general public outcry.
Historically, it is interesting to note that a very similar tradition exists during the Persian New Year celebration of Nowruz, where a character called Hajji Firuz, a Moor, travels alongside Amoo Norooz; A white bearded “Uncle” of the New Year. Revelers celebrating Hajji Firuz also put on blackface. I’m not going to judge Zwarte Piet, or Hajji Firuz for that matter, though because of my historic/cultural background I do believe that the source of the mythology and the modern blackface-wearing is crossing a certain line.
Then again, what do I know? I just made a post about the cultural differences in humor, why should Zwarte Piet be any different?
Coming in at 3rd place is Austria’s Krampus. Krampus is a mythical demon-creature that accompanies St.Nicholas during Christmas, shaking rusty chains and bells to frighten children and carting off evil children in a sack to eat for dinner. This is scary. What is scarier is that this tradition isn’t some quaint Victorian thing. People today get dressed up and roam the streets in what must be the scariest f**** demon costumes I’ve ever seen, rattling rusty chains. Granted, I’m sure the fact that the demons are drunk and laughing probably makes it less scary….for me. But If I was a kid seeing that shit, I know the damage would be irreparable.
Krampus greeting cards, called Krampuskarten, have been given to children for hundreds of years. I saw this one, and it just makes me really, really uncomfortable.
So yes. Caga Tio wins.