The moment the clock strikes midnight on December 1, the race begins. Chipper-voiced content jockeys across the internet begin to strip mine the world’s weird cultural traditions for story material to use in their Yuletide articles. This is the season of kindly bemused blog posts about German Christmas pickles and Icelandic cats who murder the badly dressed. These are the days when we gather ‘round the fire to hear of Santa Claus’ many other names and his surprisingly contentious marital status. But right now, it’s time to talk about el tió de Nadal, or “the Christmas log” in Catalan.
The tió de Nadal is part Santa Claus, part Sea Monkey, and part scavenger hunt. Storebought tiós are now common, but in the old days, you went out to a forest and found a nice log. Then you painted a face on it, gave it a little hat and a blanket, and put it in your living room. All month you’d supply the log with food and drinks and warmth, all his logly needs. Then on Christmas, you’d dance around him, singing a song and beating him with sticks until he shits.
Oh, for heaven’s sake, a bit about the poop log again? I know what you’re thinking. Another American hack just “discovered” that Catalunya (an autonomous region of Spain with a distinct language, culture, and powerful but poorly led independence movement) has a proclivity for poop-themed Christmas traditions. Congratulations, buddy—Anthony Bourdain and Norah Jones did a song about this in 2011. Then Kate McKinnon went on Seth Meyers a few years later to share why she “adopted a Catalan poop log Christmas tradition.” The Wikipedia article has already been written; the clicks have already been mined. Stop. The bit’s already dead.
Outside of Catalunya, ideas about the tió de Nadal, if they exist at all, have much in common with ideas about other regional Christmas symbols, like Krampus or the Kallikantzaroi, the Greek chimney goblins. Those ideas are mostly variations on, “foreigners do some goofy stuff, huh?” This is both true and repetitive after a point.
Is the weirdness truly so weird? Is it really that hard to imagine a version of your life in which a log that poops Christmas candies is as normal as Santa owning, or at least cohabitating with, a mysterious tribe of tiny laborers? Is there that much of a difference between leaving midnight treats for a log and leaving treats for a reindeer? Is anything more annoying than reading a paragraph like this?
If it makes you feel any better, the tió de Nadal is just as misunderstood in the rest of Spain as it is anywhere in the English-speaking world. Part of the confusion stems from diacritics: Spanish speakers often read tió (Catalan for “log”) as tío (Spanish for “uncle” or, colloquially, “dude”). Another lexical mixup: it’s widely, and incorrectly, called caga tió, or “the poop log.” This is because of the aforementioned song covered by Jones, “Caga Tió.” Here, the word caga is actually a command to the log, as shown in the translation below:
Caga tió / Shit, log,
Tió de Nadal / Log of Christmas!
No caguis arengades, que son massa salades / Don’t shit sardines, which are too salty,
Caga torrons, que són més bons! / Shit nougats, which are better!
Si no vols cagar, / If you don’t want to shit
Et donaré un cop de bastó! / I’ll hit you with a stick!
Admittedly, it’s an easy mistake to make and an amusing one as well. Mistakes don’t come much better than that, for the stakes don’t get much lower. In the grand scheme of things, any contrived outrage (or even mild “let’s set the record straight”-ness) about the tió de Nadal is not worth anyone’s time.
(Your skin is crawling. You know there’s a But… coming. You know that yet another demand is about to be placed on your already-overwhelmed brain; yet another thing you thought was harmless is about to be condemned as the first step of a slippery slope. Every atom and idea in the universe is insisting that you think about it, consider it in its entirety, appreciate its complexity. And every second, there’s more to ponder!)
But here’s some good news. The tió de Nadal is cute and funny, and it brings lots of joy to lots of people. That’s it; that’s all you need to remember about it. Like any other weird Christmas tradition, it has a long and fascinating history that might have zero relevance to your life, and it’s completely understandable why you’d have neither the time nor inclination to spend some of your precious hours on earth learning about it.
Here’s some more good news if you’re the kind of person who actually reads to the end of an article about Catalan Christmas poop logs for one reason or another: you don’t have to remember anything complex, either! One great thing about the tió de Nadal is how it distills the silliest, most creative, and most tender parts of being a human into a single ritual. It connects us to the past and gives us a canvas to sketch the future’s outline, and that’s enough to store in your brain vault.
Another great thing about the tió de Nadal is, as I mentioned before, how utterly inconsequential any opinion you have about it will be. That means it’s the perfect opinion to try changing or discarding. If that opinion was spiced with condescension or a vague sense of superiority, chuck it! If that opinion was self-critical–ugh, I am the kind of person who likes those weird Christmas tradition articles, I need to do better!—let that go too! This is just an example of humans being considerate, sweet, and playful with each other.
And (forgive me) isn’t that what Christmas is all about?