The real origins and history of the Catalan equivalent of Santa Claus is one of Barcelona’s best kept secrets.
(reader discretion is advised)
As a Finnish born citizen living in Barcelona, at first I wasn’t really interested in Catalan Christmas traditions. I knew that in Spain most children need to wait until the sixth of January for the Three Kings (Epiphany) to get their presents, while in Finland I was taught that Santa Claus brings me my presents during Christmas Eve. My mind was changed however once I started to investigate the deeper meaning of Catalan Christmas traditions and discovered a peculiar history of the Catalan equivalent of Santa Claus.
The biggest surprise was to dicover that the Catalan “Santa” was hiding a “dark” and “smelly” secret in his past.
The dirtiest job in the city
In Barcelona during the early industrial era, the trade of human excrement had become a big, organized and lucrative business. Shit was valuable and the farmers used it as a natural fertilizer. Usually in those days, human fecal waste was not used straight away as a fertilizer because it infected people with parasites. However, the Catalans had found a way to avoid infections by controlling the quality of the human waste.
Until the late 19th century people accumulated their body waste inside their apartments in pits called ‘black holes’ and released their urine through the windows to the streets.
The professionals who evaluated and collected the human excrement were Master Well Cleaners called ‘Poceros’. Traditionally these Masters went knocking from door to door and extracted the fecal waste from the wells. The peculiar thing was that instead of asking for money to do the job, they paid money for the material collected as it could be resold afterwards to farmers. The price was fixed according to the quality and quantity of the material collected.
Before modern day chemistry, the only way for the Poceros to check the quality of the human waste was to literally taste it. Before they paid the agreed price they poked it with a stick to check consistency, but it was their trained sense of taste that was the ultimate method of quality control.
A marketplace of human waste
In the summer of 1854, the government gave in to public pressure and allowed Barcelona’s city walls to be torn down. With extra space for housing, the district of Eixample was born. The new city extension would become an efficient and livable place, unlike the congested, epidemic-prone old town within the walls. Also, a new and complex sewage network was built, but not for all types of waste. The brand new sewer system evacuated all liquids from the houses and rainwater from the streets, but human excrement was stored inside the domestic wells as before.
The ever-growing number of new citizens meant more clients for the fecal waste pickers and their contractors. The designer of Eixample, Ildefons Cerdà i Sunier, even calculated that the entire extension of Barcelona could be built with the help of the money earned from human excrement.
Even the famous Plaça Catalunya in the city’s center was originally designed as a huge marketplace for poo.
Income flushed down the drain
Fortunately, the fecal waste business died little by little when the first cheap artificial fertilizers and ceramic toilets came on to the market. Also the upcoming 1888 Barcelona Universal Exposition closed the waste Market at Plaça Catalunya. But some residents, especially the less fortunate ones, were protesting against this technological and industrial revolution. Some protested because they had lost their respected profession and others because they had lost their ‘natural’ income. The ‘stingiest’ couldn’t understand why somebody would be willing to flush their precious material ‘down the drain’ and give up even more money to buy a ceramic water closet.
It took many years for people to get accustomed to the water closet, and in the early years, because of bad design and accumulation of methane, gas accidents caused many of these precious new toilet seats to explode. At the beginning of the 20th century in Barcelona the safety of toilets still raised polemic and worries. On January 24th 1914, at Calle Plains number 7, a water closet exploded and three people were injured. (Source)
What does all this dirty history of human feces have to do with present Catalan Family Christmas traditions?
Well, if you come to visit Barcelona during the Christmas season, you will see nativity scenes in many shop windows, squares and churches. Inside these nativity scenes you can find a popular figurine called the Caganer (the Crapper). The figurine is always hiding somewhere with his pants down, pooping. The typical figurine wears traditional Catalan clothes with a red cap (the barretina) like the master Pocero in the good old days…
Another tradition celebrating the long lost income is called Tió de Nadal (sometimes called just Tió or Tronca). It is a mythical figure associated with the Catalan Christmas. Typically, it’s a piece of wood with two or four legs, a broadly smiling painted circular face, and a red cap. Tió de Nadal is traditionally brought home at the beginning of December. It is taken care of by the children. The children need to make sure that it won’t get hungry and cold. It is fed and every night it is put to sleep under a warm red blanket. Finally during Christmas it is beaten with a stick and told to ‘poo’ the Christmas presents out. At the same time the people sing special Christmas carols composed just for this special occasion singing: “Caga Tio, if you don’t poop well, I’ll hit you with a stick”.
Here is a Christmas video made by Escola Vedruna de Palafrugell with Tió de Nadal. Merry Christmas!