From the 26th of November to the 23rd of December there’s a popular Christmas Fair in the square (really it’s the Avinguda de la Catedral) in front of the Cathedral. Known as the Fira de Santa Llúcia, it has been held since 1786 and has always been very popular. Santa Llúcia is patron Saint of the Blind (she was a martyr and —you can guess the rest…); according to the great documenter of Catalan folklore, Joan Amades, she was also patron of “tailors, seamstresses and all those who live by the prick of their needles”, perhaps because they needed good eyesight to sew by candlelight. People would go to the Chapel of Santa Llúcia to pray for the preservation and improvement (or recovery) of their eyesight, and then visit the stalls selling clay and paper figures, images of saints and other seasonal wares.
In those less free and easy times, the Fair was also very popular among young unmarried women, who —accompanied by their mothers and dressed up to the nines— strolled around the stalls in the hope of finding a husband; presumably the less fortunate among them hoped there would be an abundance of short-sighted men. Today, (husbands being ten-a-penny on the Internet) people mostly throng to buy the traditional Christmas Nativity scene figurines and Christmas decorations. Trees, baubles, lights, the Ponsettia “Christmas” plant with its striking red leaves—an essential element for prosperity and happiness— and mistletoe are all very popular. At New Year, people traditionally hang a sprig of mistletoe on the wall for prosperity and
happiness. Increasingly popular are the northern invaders such as Santa Claus and his minions; these can now be seen clambering onto balconies all over the city, like little red thieves with their sacks of swag on their backs. The less mindful citizens forget to take them in after Twelfth Night and there they hang, rotting like criminals on a gibbet, day after day.
The many stalls sell hand-made and cast figurines of the Holy Family, the shepherds, angels, wise men and other characters which, carefully placed in and around grottos made of cork and surrounded by moss, silver paper rivers and tiny palm trees, make up the major Christmas seasonal decoration of many Catalan homes. Some of these constructions are extremely elaborate and extensive works of family cooperation with three generations taking active roles, enjoying spending time creating their Nativity Scene and getting in the mood to enjoy Christmas together.
I remember when my daughter was small, how she would love to add one or two new figures every year. We’d sit down together and she’d delight in planning where to put all the characters and the pieces, checking what we had, deciding what we’d need and …”Can we have a little light bulb and red cellophane for a fire this year?” We’d go down to Fira, (for some strange reason half a million other people did the same at precisely the same time!) struggle to reach the stalls and buy the bulb, a little well, bridge, donkey or group of villagers, then we’d walk through the Gothic Quarter, and stop in Carrer Petrixol for some hot chocolate and buns before taking the Ferrocarrils
back home. Once back, we’d set up the “Belen”, as it’s known here, in a spot where all Christmas visitors dropping round for wassail and a warm welcome could admire it, compare it to theirs and, inwardly, secretly and comfortingly, decide that—while yours is very good, aesthetically pleasing, impressive even and admirable in all ways— theirs was much… well, much more theirs. This is still a popular pastime and has much to recommend it.The Caganer
One of the most well-loved but unusual (from an outsider’s point of view) is the figure of the “Caganer” a little Catalan peasant, barretina (Catalan cap) on his head, discreetly crouching (usually behind or to the side of the grotto) with his trousers around his ankles, an expression of placid contemplation on his little features and a small pyramid of poop under his bare buttocks. Many are the erudite theories on his origins and significance: the indifference of the
material world to the transcendent occurrences close by? Man giving back nourishment to the earth so nature is renewed? A symbolic gesture to ensure prosperity, health and so a new family “Belen” next year? A representation of the Catalan character, too practical to put off material needs and waste fertiliser, despite the supreme spiritual event taking place? Who knows, but of all the figures —some revered, some worshipped, some happily despised (if you happen to have Roman soldiers)— not one is so popularly admired, loved and cherished as the Caganer. “Very nice but, where’s the Caganer” is perhaps the first thing you say to yourself when admiring a Belen.
And there he always is, quiet, content, concentrated; fag or pipe in his little mouth perhaps, occasionally a newspaper in his hand for immediate cultural advancement and posterior cleanliness… Let us not now discuss the significance of what he reads and what he does with it.
As you might imagine, popular culture and humour ensures the Caganer is not limited to a mere Medieval peasant, no matter how significant. There are as many ways to reach the sublime status of Caganer as there are to become celebrated, famous, infamous or heroic: A Caganer admired and revered? Barça trainer Josep Guardiola. Despised? Jose Mourinho. A current celebrity? “Princess Middleton”. Figures of universal esteem and admiration? Dalai Lama. Politicians? take your pick from Castro and Chavez to Putin and Hillary Clinton (there are so many in Catalunya that they need their own shelf on the stands). Does a friend enjoy a round of golf? —take him a little golfing caganer as a gift. There are timeless icons like the Queen of England and Dark- Side Villains like Darth Vader. They’re all there, all reduced by the common human need to give back to the earth that which they have taken, perhaps as a forewarning that one day, we shall all give back, finally, fully and forever, all we have taken, all that we have and all that we are …
* Peter is our local for Barcelona. You can see his homepage here: www.ivebeenthere.co.uk/articles/barcelona-local-peter-guest.jsp
and follow his tips directly here: www.ivebeenthere.co.uk/travellers/PeterGuest
He also has his own blog: www.barcelona-tourist-information.infoLocals homepage