A traditional Catalan Christmas

Posted on: 10th December, 2018

Category: Features

Contributor: West Cork People

My Christmas traditions series

Manuel Garcia, 38, from South Catalonia in Spain, lives in Clonakilty with his Irish partner and two children. A permaschool teacher with a PhD in Philosophy, he is very interested in building community relations and, together with his partner, has set up Le Chéile, a mutual support network for parents. This smallscale local collective, which celebrates differences, is an inclusive space located between Clonakilty and Timoleague and is constantly developing in response to parents and children’s needs. Manuel came to Ireland in 2007, and although he visits Catalonia regularly, more often than not Christmas is spent in Ireland. Manuel shares some of his native Christmas traditions that he grew up with in Catalonia.

Christmas begins in Catalonia on December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. This is when the nativity arrives in households. “My granny used to collect lots and lots of moss for the nativity, which had its own sepcial table always in her home,” recalls Manuel. The ‘Caganer’ is a feature of the nativity scene only seen in Catalonia. It is a figure of a Catalan man in traditional Catalan clothes and he is squatting with his trousers around his ankles and pooing! “It’s a very old custom,” explains Manuel “his poo is seen as a sign of good luck as it fertilises the earth and ensures a good harvest for the coming year!”

On the night of December 24, known as ‘Nochebuena’ (Christmas Eve), and indeed for many nights afterwards, families gather around the table in Catalonia to eat and share the typical Christmas dishes and sing songs. “In my village in Spain, about the size of Clonakilty, there is always a big parade in the streets earlier in the evening. A music band stops every few metres and, after work, more and more people join in the parade following the band. After the parade, we go home for dinner,” explains Manuel.

The main food that Manuel remembers at Christmas is pilota, an egg-shaped meatball that can vary in size. “It’s traditionally made from dry hard bread and pieces of hard meat and cheese,” he explains. “The pilota are served in a soup so it a very filling dish.”

Canalons is another popular dish, which involves stuffing canneloni with meat. “My granny told us years later, as adults, that she used to stuff the canneloni with sheep brains,” says Manuel, who is now a vegetarian.

Gambas al ajillo is a classic dish – big sweet shrimp marinated in salt and and garlic and cooked in oil.

‘We would often have had partridge too,” he says.

Throughout Spain, the most widely known Christmas sweet is the turrón, or torró as it’s called in Catalan.

“It’s a nougat bar made of honey, egg whites, sugar and almonds,” says Manuel.

“I remember when I was growing up that only women were allowed in the kitchen. My granny only let me help when she realised how badly I wanted to cook,” he says. “I told her I love food and I want to learn and eventually she listened.”

Manuel’s granny was like a second mother to him. “She had a big house and a round table, which we would all fit around at Christmas,” he recalls nostalgically. “We had three days of feasting with family.”

One of the more unusual traditions in Catalonia involves a log covered with a blanket, ‘tió de Nadal’. “The log is fed with scraps of food in the run up to Christmas and on the night of December 24, the children sing and hit the log with a stick and it ‘poops’ out sweets,” explains Manuel with a grin.

Christmas in Catalonia doesn’t end until January 6. On January 5, the Three Kings arrive and with them come the gifts. “All the kids are waiting and are very excited on January 5,” says Manuel. Prior to this date children have written their letters to the Three Kings telling them whether they have been ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and what they would like for Christmas.

In many villages and smaller towns in Spain, the Kings arrive at night and there is a spectacular parade with fire and lights,” he explains “The parade usually ends at the Church where the priest gives each child their present, left by the Kings’ ‘helpers’ earlier.”

In the bigger towns and cities, children awake to see what gifts the kings have brought on the morning of January 6.

After a traditional Irish Christmas in West Cork, this year Manuel is bringing his family to celebrate and take part in the Feast of the Three Kings in Catalonia. “It will be the first time that my children take part in this celebration,” he says. “I still vividly remember the excitement of running through the streets with the Three Kings.”

Pictured above: The ‘Caganer’ is a feature of the nativity scene only seen in Catalonia.

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