James and I were drinking in the Doctors pub last night with my old friend Anna and an agency worker named Montserrat. The city is presently in the throws of Christmas, which has fallen over all of our lives like the shadow of cancer, arresting everything with a thousand petty inconveniences and one gigantic sense of obstruction. Christmas is the best argument against folk culture, as everything about this festival is thoroughly stagnant and depleted. Yet we still yearly traipse through it like zombies attacking a shopping mall. One sometimes considers how refreshing it would be if we occasionally took a year off from Christmas and did something else in the last two weeks of December.
Montserrat hails from Catalonia, and she was telling James about a curious Christmas tradition amongst the Catalans. Unfortunately, Montserrat’s English was a little hit-and-miss and she mispronounced a word crucial to the success of her story:
“Ebery year we get this… chrunk?”
“Ah, yes. Drunk.”
“It’s drunk. A drunken man.”
And so Montserrat continued her story and she described how every year the children of the village found a drunk and fed him with fine food for two weeks. Finally, on Christmas eve, they beat him with sticks whilst singing lustily, until he shat in the fireplace.
James was dismayed. “There’s something wrong with this story…”
“They feed it rather in the same manner that your father Christmas is offered a mince pie and a glass of sherry. The food is placed before the log, the children leave, and when they return the food is gone.”
“And then the log… makes caca?”
“It shits presents. You have to put it in the fireplace and beat it with a stick, until the presents emerge from behind a blanket. They are shared between the children.”
“This tradition could be combined with our own, so that Father Christmas shits presents down your chimney.”
“But that would be difficult for the parents to fake. The presents would all be broken when they crashed down the chimney, and the icy conditions would make it likely that the parents would fall off the roof and be killed.”
“I guess you’re right. Don’t you think that the caga tio sounds a bit like South Park’s Mr. Hanky?”
Montserrat intervened to explain that shit appeared a lot in Catalan traditions. The Catalan nativity scene features a caganer, or a man from the mountains who defecates behind the manger. Rather like the urinating peasant found in medieval paintings of feast days, the caganer is a little detail amongst a busy tableau and he is typically searched for and spotted, like the protagonist of Where’s Wally? (the Catalan nativity scene sometimes includes the whole city of Bethlehem rather than just the manger). All sorts of reasons are evoked for the caganer’s presence at the nativity – it is sometimes argued that his ugly humanity qualifies the otherworldly splendours of the occasion – but there are obvious jokes at work in this tradition: the hapless mountain man attends a great historical event and he misses it by going to the toilet.
Later, Anna was talking about Christmas in Poland and she recounted a story which I have heard told all too frequently. On the night of Christmas eve, many Polish families enjoy the twelve course Wigilia Christmas feast (each course represents a disciple). No meat is eaten in this feast, although the main course is typically carp. When Anna was a little girl, her family bought a live carp in the days before Christmas, and they kept it in the bath so that it would be fresh for the Wigilia feast. Showering every morning, Anna made friends with the carp, and she chatted to the fish as it nosed around her ankles. She gave it a name and fed it food from her own breakfast – a generosity which her parents encouraged. On the afternoon of Christmas eve, she witnessed the frantic scramble as her father manhandled the carp out of the bath. She heard him haul the fish into the kitchen and kill it with a hammer. The sight of the carp on the Wigilia table made Anna violently sick, and she spent most of Christmas crying in her bedroom.
Tychy raises a glass to wish all readers a Merry Christmas.
[I recall that Anna’s story has been previously illustrated on Tychy. Ed.]