This year’s most puzzling Christmas card

Well, holiday card. It came to me electronically from ADS-Ler Wilson Gray, a friend for, oh, 50-some years now:

(#1)

The message is in Spanish (‘happy holidays and a prosperous new year’). The main figure appears to be an oddly costumed Brobdingnagian Clone Santa (Clone as in the Castro Clone of the 1970s), complete with The Clone ‘Stache and the Cruise of Death gaze, plus a red Santa cap — and three miniature replicas of himself in various costumes (one in drag) but all with the ‘stache, plus what appears to be a shoe of some sort concealing his junk. Meanwhile, Santa is displaying his manly legs and a bit of his manly chest, while wearing what looks like a slinky patterned smoking jacket or robe (rather than the expected form-fitting t-shirt, leather jacket, or plaid shirt, worn with tight-fitting Levi’s).

There’s snow and evergreens — well, it’s Christmas — but also some imposing non-generic snowy mountains looming in the background.

It turns out that we’re in Catalonia, in the Pyrenees, but that doesn’t explain a lot of what we see in #1. On the other hand, we could do a lot worse than visit Barcelona for the holiday season.

Wilson has exlained to me that he got the card from a Catalonian friend on Facebook, which is what allowed me to discover that the mountains are recognizably the Pyrenees. The language is Spanish: Catalan Bon Nadal ‘Merry Christmas’ (Sp. Feliz Navidad); Cat. Bones Festes ‘Happy Holidays’ (Sp. Felices Fiestas). But that’s no great surprise, since Catalonia is still part of Spain, whatever many Catalonians might hope for the future. (There are Christmas cards in Catalan, by the way.)

The features of Santa Claus costumes, in particular the red cap, are not unknown in Catalonia, but with one exception (to be noted below), Santa Claus figures are not a central part of Catalonian Christmas. Nevertheless, as Lisa Abend explained in a 12/15/13 NYT travel piece “A Catalan Christmas”,

On Christmas Day, the big event is a group swim in the chilly waters off Barcelona. The gifts don’t come until Kings Day, Jan. 6.

(#2)

Note various degrees of Santa garb here.

I’ll continue with Catalonia in a moment. But one more word about the Clone look of the Santa in #1. A 7/30/11 posting “X of death, killer X” has “an innocent bystander is stopped dead in his tracks by Al “The-Cruise-of-Death” Jones” in an Ortleb & Fiala cartoon from a 1978 book; Al “CoD” Jones is pretty much a perfect Clone. Another Clone image, from the French gay magazine Muto:

(#3)

The ‘stache and the intense gaze. Finally, here’s a Clone Santa, with the ‘stache but not the gaze:

(#4)

One further note on #1: there are three miniature figures posing on the giant Clone Santa, so that I entertained the possibility that they represented the Three Kings, or Three Wise Men, celebrated on El Día de Reyes Magos (Three Kings Day, Epiphany). The kings are a big thing in Barcelona. From Abend’s piece:

It was the Christmas season in Barcelona, but inside the city hall, a 14th-century palace, a scene from “the Arabian Nights” was playing out. Palm trees and satin cushions had turned the Gothic patio into a desert tent, complete with incense and Middle Eastern music. Pages, clad in pantaloons and velvet-trimmed turbans, led each child to the Moorish throne of the Royal Mailman and the bulging satchel he would use to convey their petitions to the Three Kings. Yes, those Three Kings: the magi in the manger with the frankincense and myrrh. Here in the Mediterranean, the North Pole and the jolly guy in the fur-trimmed suit don’t make much cultural sense. And you have to admit that there’s a certain biblical logic to having the Kings rather than Santa bear gifts.

Like so many things in life — soccer, sex, pigs’ feet with snails — Christmas is better in Barcelona. Not for the Catalans the tinsel, the candy canes, the celebrity reindeer with his blinking nose. No, Christmas in Barcelona is an altogether sleeker affair, whimsical and exotic in equal measure. The lights lining the avenues are more artistic, the parades better choreographed, the cakes more elaborate and the exertions more athletic. (Witness the Christmas day group swim, when hundreds of Barcelonans launch themselves into the chilly Mediterranean.) It’s the time when Barcelona is more truly itself: the tourists are still here, but somehow it seems as if the city has reverted back to its rightful owners.

On January 5th, the kings arrive by boat (from the East, of course) and proceed through Barcelona to much celebration. And then the kids get their serious gifts on the 6th.

The three kings: Melchor (Melchior), white hair, long beard (that’s me; I’m Arnold Melchior Zwicky); Gaspar (Caspar), blond or red-haired; and Baltasar (Balthazar), a black man, usually the children’s favorite. I can’t see any way to map the three miniature figures in #1 onto these traditional characters. For the moment, they’re just a mystery to me, a whimsical feature of #1. As is the Clone Santa’s elegant but seriously un-Clonish jacket, robe, shirt, blouse, or whatever.

The red Santa cap does sometimes figure in another piece of the holidays in Catalonia. From Wikipedia (note: this account eventually goes into the toilet):

(#5)

The Tió de Nadal (… meaning in English “Christmas Log”), also known simply as Tió (“Trunk” or “Log”, a big piece of cut wood) or Tronca (“Log”), is a character in Catalan mythology relating to a Christmas tradition widespread in Catalonia and some regions of Aragon. A similar tradition exists in other places, such as the Cachafuòc or Soc de Nadal in Occitania. In Aragon it is also called Tizón de Nadal or Toza.

The form of the Tió de Nadal found in many Aragonese and Catalan homes during the holiday season is a hollow log about thirty centimetres long. Recently, the Tió has come to stand up on two or four stick legs with a broad smiling face painted on its higher end, enhanced by a little red sock hat (a miniature of the traditional barretina) [not in #5] and often a three-dimensional nose. Those accessories have been added only in recent times, altering the more traditional and rough natural appearance of a dead piece of wood.

… On Christmas Day or, in some households, on Christmas Eve, one puts the tió partly into the fireplace and orders it to defecate. The fire part of this tradition is no longer as widespread as it once was, since many modern homes do not have a fireplace. To make it defecate, one beats the tió with sticks, while singing various songs of Tió de Nadal.

The tradition says that before beating the tió all the kids have to leave the room and go to another place of the house to pray, asking for the tió to deliver a lot of presents. This makes the perfect excuse for the relatives to do the trick and put the presents under the blanket while the kids are praying.

The tió does not drop larger objects, as those are considered to be brought by the Three Wise Men [on Epiphany, January 6th]. It does leave candies, nuts and torrons [nougat candies]. Depending on the region of Catalonia, it may also give out dried figs. What comes out of the Tió is a communal rather than individual gift, shared by everyone there.

The tió is often popularly called Caga tió (“Shitting log”, “Poo log”). This derives from the many songs of Tió de Nadal that begin with this phrase, which was originally (in the context of the songs) an imperative (“Shit, log!”). The use of this expression as a name is not believed to be part of the ancient tradition.

Having gone this far, we might as well go on to another Catalonian custom:

(#6)

You would be forgiven for doing a double take when you see your first caganer (“crapper”), a figurine depicting a peasant in traditional garb normally tucked away at the back of a nativity scene. They are easy to spot given that they always will be found with their pants around their ankles, squatting over a freshly desposited poop(!). These cheeky characters have been regular inclusions in Catalan nativity scenes since the late 17th century, and in more recent years it is quite common to find caganars that have been crafted to resemble contemporary figures, such as Barack Obama or members of the British Royal Family. (link)

So now you know a little bit about how to talk dirty in Catalan.

One Response to “This year’s most puzzling Christmas card”

  1. chrishansenhome Says:

    I have a caganer in the form of Pope Benedict XVI. Cute from the front, slightly risqué from the rear. It put me in mind of the old saying “Is the bear Catholic? Does the Pope sh*t in the woods?” Or was it the other way around…?

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