Eileen and I stumbled across a list of strange Christmas traditions recently, which introduced us to Caga Tio, or “Shit Log.” It’s a Catalonian thing, ya’ll wouldn’t understand. I know I certainly don’t.
But the ritual surrounding Caga Tio is so fascinating that I really want to understand it.
Let’s start with what I do know after some minor research: Caga Tio is a log with a face painted on it. He’s often propped up on one end with a couple of stick legs. A quick Google images search will give you all sorts of pictures. Here’s one of them:
A couple weeks before Christmas, Caga Tio shows up in the dining room of the house and the family feeds him things like oranges and crackers. I’m not quite sure how this is done, since it doesn’t appear that Caga has an actual mouth. But it’s a daily ritual.
Weeks pass, and sometime closer to Christmas day, the log is moved to the living room, where they put a blanket over him to keep him warm. On Christmas Eve, then, the parents sneak some presents under the blanket and the kids beat the log while chanting a strange incantation in Catalan, which translates as “Log, log, shit candy! If you don’t shit for Christmas, we will whack you once more!”
There are lots of YouTube videos of this sort of thing, but I can’t understand a word that’s being said since they’re either speaking Catalan or they’re talking too quickly for me. The videos usually involve just a few children surrounded by a lot of overly enthusiastic adults who are all doing their best to be amazed by the magically gift-wrapped shit that appears once the blanket covering the log’s ass has been whisked away.
Eileen and I spent a good half hour this morning watching various Spanish families beating the shit out of happy-faced logs. It’s immensely entertaining. It’s also extremely weird. But I suppose that many of our traditions are weird. Boiling unfertilized chicken eggs, painting them in pastels, and hiding them around the house (sometimes in bookshelves, where they can go for months before they’re finally discovered because they smell so bad) is just one such odd ritual that comes to mind.
Still, there is a difference between eggs and shit, isn’t there? I fully understand how funny poop is (in fact, contrary to my previous beliefs, I find poop only gets funnier with age), but to elevate it to the realms of magic, miracle, and holiness I find strange.
Such ruminations led me on a search for the origins of the phrase “Holy Shit,” which I actually couldn’t find (try Googling “Holy Shit” — not helpful). But I did come across an article about “Divine Excrement” in ancient Mexico, which begins with a very concise overview of how polar opposite to holiness poop is in Western culture.
“In Western culture today,” it explains, “‘Holy Shit’ functions as an exclamation of surprise or dismay precisely because it has no reference beyond itself; its power as a profanity derives from the paradox embedded in it. For us, excrement is never divine.” Exactly what I was trying to say.
So how is excrement possibly divine? And is such holy-making truly what’s going on in the case of Caga Tio?
The first question has an answer. According to Cecilia Klein, author of “Divine Excrement: The Significance of Holy Shit in Ancient Mexico,” various indigenous meso-american cultures had a complex relationship with poop. Filth was often associated with sinful activities like drunkenness and sexual promiscuity; such offenders were said to wallow in excrement. However, it was that same excrement that provided some purification. Consider that soil, specifically humus, is pretty literally the filth of worms and small organisms. Gods like Tlazolteotl functioned in the same way as such nutrient-rich soil and were thus the means of offsetting transgressions by “converting them into something healthy and fertile” when the transgressors confessed to her.
Another pretty cool story involves the god of syphilis, who got together with some other gods in the dark days before the sun existed and burned incense as they were trying to figure out how to light the world. Unfortunately, the god of syphilis didn’t have any incense, so he burned his own scat and then set himself on fire “in order to rise as the sun.” The Aztecs viewed gold as the excrement of the sun and as a result prescribed gold dust as a cure for syphilis.
Thus, excrement comes to be ambivalent in its associations. Sometimes it means the same as our concept of moral impurity; sometimes it’s more redemptive.
Now, whether the Caga Tio is some sort of spillover from a Catalonian pagan ritual similar to the Aztecs, I have no idea. But there’s a certain value, perhaps in including a hint of something less desireable in the Christmas tradition.
I mean, let’s face it, Christmas is a little whitewashed. It tells of Jesus’ beginnings but it doesn’t like to think about how that story ultimately reaches its ugly end. Christmas is the story of Christ made easily digestible. So why not remind ourselves that the candy that magically appears on Christmas Day arrives to us via a path that isn’t paved with pretty things exclusively?