Jan. 6 is “Los Reyes,” the day that Catalonians celebrate the wise men visiting Jesus. Traditionally, it was more of a gift-giving day than Christmas, although the commercialization of Christmas is certainly reversing this.
There are a number of interesting local traditions that take place on Jan. 6. One of which is the “Caga Tió,” which is a log with a painted face and a traditional Catalan hat. For about a month leading up to Jan. 6, the children of a Catalan household will leave out food for their Tiós to eat. Then, the children will beat the log with sticks and chant a song that roughly translates to, “Poop, Tió, poop. If you don’t poop well, I’ll hit you with a stick!” After the children leave for a moment and return to the Tió, the parents remove a blanket that has been covering the log to reveal — presents for the children!
This tradition — feeding a log in the hope that it will poop presents for you — certainly sounds strange to an American ear. But then again, I’m sure that leaving out milk and cookies in the hopes that a large, fat man in a red suit will come down your chimney to give you presents sounds strange to anyone unfamiliar with Santa.
Another Catalan tradition is the “Caganer,” a figure that is sure to grace any true Catalan nativity scene. A Caganer is a figure squatting, pants down, in the act of pooping. Supposedly the manure is supposed to indicate good luck and prosperity, although I’m still unsure how public defecation constitutes “luck.”
Why Catalonians seem to be preoccupied with pooping figures, I have no idea, but these are just a sample of the interesting quirks and traditions that I have heard of, and often had the opportunity to partake in, during my time here in Spain. Since my arrival in September, I have gained a much better understanding of Catalan, Spanish, and European ways of thinking.
Europe is certainly an amazing place. It has great history, architecture, art, music, food, and traditions. Living in Europe has provided me with an opportunity to steep in this culture. My Spanish has improved significantly. I have met many interesting people. And I have traveled to many great places.
I expected these things to be great. And they were.
However, one thing I didn’t expect to gain from this experience was a better appreciation for my home country. I left the U.S. wanting to live as a European for a semester, and, as I return to the U.S., I’m realizing my identity more fully as an American.
America has a reputation for being “the land of opportunity,” and that reputation still holds true. Our country is a huge economic powerhouse and a magnet for job-seekers and entrepreneurs. Laws in the U.S. are relatively business-friendly. It’s quite easy to start a business.
In contrast, the job market in Spain is struggling. Reeling from its own housing crisis, Spain’s unemployment is about 20 percent nationwide, and nearly 50 percent for the youngest age bracket of the workforce. Entrepreneurship and job opportunity are choked by red tape, layers of bureaucracy, and unsustainable welfare and Social Security programs.
In the Spanish public university where I am studying, students in the International Economics program can choose to take their classes in Spanish/Catalan, or in English. Many of the students that are taking their classes in English are hoping to leave Spain to work in either the UK, Australia, or the United States. One of my friend’s self-professed plans is to marry an American to come to the U.S., since she feels like there are few opportunities in Spain.
Another reason I appreciate America is our culture. What is October without Halloween? What is November without Thanksgiving? You really realize how wonderful these traditions are when you are apart from them.
My experience in Spain has been fantastic. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. And yet, I had a huge smile on my face walking off the jetway into Sky Harbor Airport.
It would have been amusing to watch Spanish kids whack a log at full force, hoping that it will poop out presents. But I’d rather be home for Christmas, in my home country, drinking hot chocolate next to our Christmas tree.
God bless the USA.
• Scott Norgaard is a junior at Rice University in Houston, Texas, pursing a degree in mathematical economic analysis. He is an alumni of Desert Vista High School in Ahwatukee. This column is part of a series chronicling his adventures studying abroad in Barcelona, Spain.