The first time I heard about Caga Tió, or Tió de Nadal, my family was getting settled into our life abroad in Barcelona this fall. A new friend's teenage daughter was telling us about the Catalan traditions she celebrates in school.
"During Christmas, there's a log that you feed scraps of food, and then he poops presents when you hit him with a stick and sing a song!"
Then she sang:
Caga tió, (Poop log)
tió de Nadal, (Log of Christmas)
no caguis arengades (Don't poop salted herring)
que són massa salads (They are too salty)
caga torrons (Poop turróns)
que són més bons! (They are much better!)
I had so many questions. Mostly, why was a log being urged to poop something called turróns, to eat? When I asked Catalan friends, there were no clear answers. Apparently, Caga Tió is like Santa. You take the presents, you don't ask questions. But I wanted to connect the dots.
Caga Tió starts popping up in markets at the beginning of December: A log with a drawn-on face, with a big smile, and a jaunty red hat.
Around the same time, store shelves begin to be filled with turrón, a nougat traditionally made of egg white, honey or sugar, and almonds. They're fashioned into rectangles or cakes, and served sliced into bite-sized pieces. The most popular versions feature milled or whole almonds, and hail from towns in the southeastern region of Valencia. But there's many takes on turrón: Caramel, chocolate, fruit, and even liqueur-filled versions.
I started my investigation at Victoriano Candela, a turrón specialty shop in Girona with a glorious Art Deco façade and crystal chandeliers dangling from the ceilings. Turróns of all types are stacked like bricks atop the counters.
Sandra Redondo-Candela was behind the counter. Her family has been making turrón for over fifty years. She told me that when she was little, she'd leave oranges in front of Tió at night, and in the morning, only the peels would remain.
After feeding him for weeks, on December 24, a blanket was placed on the non-face end of Tió. Then the singing, and the beating, would commence. Afterward, she'd be sent into another room to pray. When she returned, the blanket was lifted, revealing presents and turrón.
I asked Redondo-Candela if the idea of a pooping Christmas log struck her as unusual.
"We are Catalan," she said, as if that was explanation enough.
The origins of both Caga Tió and turrón are hazy, and their marriage appears to be one of convenience. "Any candy type can be placed in Tió de Nadal," Jordi Manes, a professor of nutrition at the University of Valencia, wrote me in an email. But Tió is implored to poop turrón, specifically, because it's the traditional Christmas sweet – not just in Catalonia, but across all of Spain.
As candy legend has it, turrón was brought to Spain by the Moors, in the medieval period, when most of Spain was known as Al-Andalus. There's no record of a specific event of cultural transmission, but documents from the 16th century refer to turrón being consumed during the Christmas season since "time immemorial."
Manes says that it's likely that turróns were reserved for special occasions due to their high cost. It was served during the holiday by King Phillip II, and spread through the country by the nobility. "There are also documents that associate turrón with salary," Manes wrote. "In fact, it is known that the Spanish port city, Alicante´s landowners paid the first half of salaries in coins and the second half in turrón during Christmas season."
It was clear that turrón was highly valued, at least in Alicante. So how did it end up coming out the butt of a log in Catalonia? I looked for answers back in Barcelona, at the city's department of Popular Culture. There, Marcos Yáñez and Xavier Busquets assured me that Caga Tió shares with turrón the distinction of being part of the culture since "time immemorial."
Yáñez dug out a small pamphlet out of the department's archives titled, "Tió de Navidad: el ciclo navideño." It described the origins of Caga Tió as a pagan tradition celebrating the Winter Solstice. In rural villages, Catalans would choose a large tree trunk to set aflame in a bonfire. They'd burn it throughout the winter, and honor it as Tió de Nadal. At some point – and no one knows exactly when – that tradition evolved into the tradition of families finding a log in the woods, covering with a blanket and caring for it inside the house until it was time for Tió to "give back" – now small gifts and the obvious choice of turrón, instead of warmth.
But why does it have to "poop" the turrón? I asked. Yánez and Busquets both shrugged.
"No one knows," Yánez said.
"It's just a thing we do," said Busquets.
I had hoped to find a tidy origin story, but instead, I understood how most Catalans haven't asked, "Why?" The tradition of Caga Tió is bizarre to the rest of the world, but here, imploring a log to poop candy with sticks and threats is as magical as waiting to hear the sound of sleigh bells on the roof of your house.
After leaving the archives, I picked up my three-year-old son from school. He had just returned from a field trip to go"find" Caga Tió in a park on the edge of the city.
We then headed to see another Tió at a small Christmas party. My Catalan friend sang the traditional song and my son hit Caga Tió with a wooden spoon. When the blanket was lifted, there was a small set of watercolors, a Kinder egg, and a bottle of beer for the parents. No turrón – it appeared separately, on a plate, and it was delicious.
Lindsay Patterson is the creator, producer, and co-host of Tumble, a science podcast for kids. She lives in Barcelona with her husband and son.