In search of Nativity plays in Barcelona

The Pastorets tableaux are a Catalan tradition. But who, asks Alastair Fairley, is that little bloke squatting in the corner?

They always do things differently in Barcelona. Buildings with dancing green dragons for roofs, nightclubs that don't start until 5am – they've even got their own language. But you might think that when it comes to something as traditional as Christmas the Catalans, like the rest of us, might settle down to a nice cosy fire, Santa Claus and their equivalent of Morecambe and Wise on the box. You'd be wrong.

They always do things differently in Barcelona. Buildings with dancing green dragons for roofs, nightclubs that don't start until 5am – they've even got their own language. But you might think that when it comes to something as traditional as Christmas the Catalans, like the rest of us, might settle down to a nice cosy fire, Santa Claus and their equivalent of Morecambe and Wise on the box. You'd be wrong.

So they've got their own special take on Christmas

Certainly have, and you won't find it anywhere else in Spain either. It's fun, it's been celebrated the same way for centuries and it's, well, a bit weird. There's all the usual fancy Christmas lights and decorations festooning virtually every street. But there's also the hugely popular craze of Els Pastorets. They're a bit like the mystery plays in England, except they concentrate on the story of the nativity, and run in theatres and local community centres all over the city in December and January. This is Barcelona, though, so they're not your standard primary-school-show-complete-with-video-wielding-parent. More like a cross between panto and religious tableaux, there can be fireworks, horned devils and winged angels flying from the ceiling. Not to be missed.

Sounds like fun. What's weird in that?

On the face of it it's all fairly conventional, celebrating the birth of Christ, angels and donkeys. Thing is, Catalans often like to add some of their own brand of Christmas imagery. And that's distinctly scatological.

Scatological? Isn't that something to do with, erm ...?

Precisely. There's Mary and Jesus in the stables and the Three Kings all bearing their gifts. Except look closely in some of Els Pastorets and you'll see a little man tucked away round the corner taking a dump. He's a kind of folk hero in Catalonia. That's El Caganer, or, as the Catalans put it "l'homme que fa les seves feines". Roughly translated, that means "the man who's doing his business".

That is definitely weird. What's he got to do with Christmas?

In Barcelona, quite a lot. Plenty of theories abound. Some people say he's fertilising the ground so the family can be well looked after in the year to come. Other people say it's because his take on the greatest mystery in the world is he couldn't give a ... The jury's out, but you won't find him in any of the Pastorets or nativity cribs in churches, so that might be a clue. Either way, he's much loved. He's even in a museum. For that you will have to travel 50 miles north to Figueres, home town of that other famous scatologist, Salvador Dali. The director of the Toy Museum there has been collecting caganers for over 40 years.

Traditionally, the caganer is a Catalan peasant with a red beret and his pants down, but you'll find caganer nuns, one-legged caganers, even caganers with mobile phones. There are interactive educational websites about him, origami kits, exhibitions. One Catalan baker even produces a chocolate caganer with the features of some hero or villain. Last year it was Luis Figo, the footballer who signed for Real Madrid from Barcelona.

But what about the other celebrations? Is this, like, a theme?

It appears so. Christmas Day and Boxing Day aren't celebrated with presents. For that, the poor Catalan children have to wait until January. To tide them over, though, their parents usually have a Caga Tio, otherwise known as "the shitting log". This celebration, usually on Christmas Eve, involves the children dancing around the log and bashing it with sticks. Meanwhile, they sing the delightful Catalan ditty: "Shit log, shit, sweets and nougat, if you don't shit good I'll bash you with my stick." The logs then spew forth bundles of goodies and amazingly, the end of the whole episode is signalled with a piece of toilet paper. Lovely.

Does it get worse?

Afraid so. On 5 January Barcelona is filled with excited children and, by now, slightly weary parents for the Cavalcada dels Reis, or Three Kings Procession. The kings – huge, ornate walking megaliths – arrive at dusk at the harbour and make their way in fantastic carriages doling out sweets and trinkets to the throngs. Loud, colourful, totally Catalan. The next day – El Dia dels Reis – the children wake up to their presents. It's all highly spirited, and means children haven't got time to break their new toys either. Most of them are back to school the next day.

What's wrong with that?

Nothing, except it doesn't end there. Among the things handed out to the children on Kings' Feast Day are tifas, little marzipan cakes carefully shaped, unmistakably, to look like turds. They've even got little black flies on them, in spun sugar. You can find them in most of the bakeries around Christmas time. That is, if you can stomach them. Children think it's hilarious, but then they would.

So how can I enjoy a Catalan Christmas?

Els Pastorets take place all over Barcelona at Christmas. You can find out where and when from the Barcelona Tourist Office in Placa Catalunya or the City Cultural Information office in Palau de La Virreina, at La Rambla 99. You can take your pick depending on whether you verge on the sacrosanct or heretical.

If you're after caganers, keep your eyes open because they'll be everywhere. But you mustn't miss the Fira de Santa Llucia, which masses around the cathedral like a medieval fair. Here you can buy all manner of Christmas decoration, tinsel, nativity scenes (with or without caganers!), trees, logs and hand-made gifts. There's another, similar, fair in front of the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi's spectacular church, which makes for a wonderful backdrop.

You'll find plenty of tifas to choose from at the Three Kings Fair, along with toys, sweets and other gifts on the Gran Via between Muntaner and Entenca, which runs until 5 January. And you shouldn't miss the huge, life-sized nativity scene erected each year in the Placa de Sant Jaume, unfortunately, sin caganer!

If you're still in town for New Year's Eve, there are plenty of mass public celebrations but, wherever you are at midnight, make sure you take a bunch of grapes with you. At midnight, Catalans start scoffing grapes, one for every chime of the bell, and if you stop half-way it's bad luck. Needless to say, all that's left to do is swill them down with a glass of cava, and for that there's no better stop-off point than the fabulous El Xampanyet, on the Carrer de Montcada, a bustling den of tapas, free-flowing champagne and coarse Catalan laughter.

I can't bear Morecambe and Wise. Take me there now

You're best off staying at one of the reasonably priced hotels. I travelled with Thomas Cook Holidays and stayed at the three-star Best Western Hotel Gravina, just off Placa Catalunya. Two nights there cost from £265 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights and b&b accommodation. Extra nights cost from £44.

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