From pooping logs to creepy ghouls: the world's quirkiest Christmas traditions

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A Christmas tree made from 45,000 glass crystals has gone up in Tokyo, creating a spectacular visual effect as it shimmers in the light. Video: Craig Platt

I want to say, "You couldn't make this stuff up." But the thing is, someone did make this stuff up.

Someone, somewhere, decided on a Christmas tradition of hitting a log with a small stick and asking it to poo out sweet treats (not salty herrings, which would indicate you hadn't behaved yourself during the year – obviously). Someone else thought it would be a good idea to include in every nativity scene a figurine that is secretly doing a poo.

And the people behind this wacky tradition? Not those from some far-eastern-European culture. Not from a tribe from Central America. I'm talking about the Catalans. People in Barcelona and its surrounds. It turns out the culture responsible for La Sagrada Familia, the works of Salvador Dali, and the paintings of Joan Miro is also behind probably the weirdest Christmas tradition on the planet.

Granted, one person's weird is the next person's standard belief. People might think Australia's prawns-and-beaches Christmas celebration is a little quirky too. You might even experience your own personal strangeness this year as you hang out with your bizarre family members and ponder how it is you're actually related to these people. But still, wait until you hear a bit more about Caga Tio.

Originally, I was going to write this column as a sort of round-up of the quirkier Christmas traditions that are observed around the world. I was going to talk about the Netherlands' "Black Peter", a clearly racist character, complete with black-face make-up that the Dutch swear is soot and is totally not offensive or at all related to the dark-skinned Moors from southern Spain that Peter represents, who acts as comic relief for hard-working Saint Nicholas (who comes from Madrid).

The first to find the pickle on Christmas Day receives an extra gift.

The first to find the pickle on Christmas Day receives an extra gift. Photo: iStock

I was going to mention Austria's annual "Krampus run": a terrifying stampede of Christmas ghouls who pick out children who've been bad and given them lumps of coal. There's also the Welsh tradition of "Mari Lwyd", which involves someone parading around town holding a horse's skull on the end of a wooden pole. And even the United States is weird – there they hide an ornament shaped like a pickle on the Christmas tree, and whoever finds it gets good luck for the year to come.

But still, none of these traditions comes anywhere near close to the bizarre greatness of Catalonia's "Tio de Nadal", or "Christmas Log".

The Christmas Tio: The Catalonian pooping log.

The Christmas Tio: The Catalonian pooping log. Photo: iStock

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Here's the deal: Caga Tio, or "poo log", is a smiley, hat-wearing piece of wood who sits in your lounge room during December and gets "fed" every night, meaning he grows as the month goes on. He's also wrapped in a warm blanket to make sure he's comfortable. Finally, on Christmas Eve, the children of the house take sticks and beat Caga Tio until he poos out sweets and candy.

The infamously sweary Catalans do this, I should add, while singing a song with the following (explicit) lyrics: "Shit, log/Shit nougats/hazelnuts and mato cheese/if you don't shit well/I'll hit you with a stick/shit, log!"

If you've been good, Caga Tio will indeed poop out said nougats and cheese. If you've been bad, you'll get salted herrings (which, given it's Barcelona, would probably still taste pretty good). This is a tradition that's enacted across Catalonia, year after year.

However, if it's possible, the legend of Caga Tio might not even be the most bizarre Catalan Christmas tradition. Because there's also the "caganer", or "shitter".

Take a close look at any nativity scene in Catalonia, or even in neighbouring Valencia. Somewhere in that crowd of figurines there will be one naughty character squatting just slightly, and doing a poo. Why? There are several possible explanations, including a symbolic fertilising of the earth, and a representation of people pooing as the great leveller – yes, this is the original "everybody poops".

While caganers used to be represented as peasants in traditional dress, these days you find all sorts of celebrities' images being used, including Lady Gaga, Donald Trump and the Pope, all poised with a cheeky grin, taking a number two in mythical Bethlehem.

I don't mean to make fun of Catalan traditions here. I don't want you to laugh at Tio de Nadal – but you can laugh with it. Because that's the idea. This is a Christmas rite that strips away all pretenses and formalities; like the Catalans themselves, it's funny and irreverent, and just a little bit odd. Surely that's something Australians could get on board with.

I'm not suggesting we all go out and buy pooping logs to put in the lounge room this year. But maybe there's at least room for a caganer.

What are the most interesting Christmas traditions you've come across on your travels? Do Australians do anything the rest of the world thinks is weird?

Email: b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

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