Holidays in Barcelona — and what we missed out on as American kids


Merry Christmas from Barcelona!!! 



As we were walking through the Christmas markets on the 23rd, I kept seeing figurines of a little man crapping right next to the typical Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, shepherds, manger–you know….Christmas stuff. 

Finally, I had to ask, what is up with the crapping dude?

Turns out his name is “The Caganer”—meaning, the shitter–and is an essential feature of modern Catalan nativity scenes. And these scenes are enormous. A newlywed couple will start a nativity scene, or a “belen,” and then add a figure every year henceforth. By the time they’re grandparents, the scene takes up an entire room. 

When I was a kid, I thought nativity scenes were boooooooring. If my Italian grandma, Meme, had sat me down to explain every porcelain figure she’d stolen (or, as she said, received as “a gift from god”), I would’ve stuck a cannoli in my eye.

But that is not what happens in Spain. 

Belens are all over town and kids flock to see them. Why you ask? 

Enter the caganer.


The beloved caganer plays a very important role in this holy ensemble. He is carefully tucked away in a corner of the model, perhaps squatting behind a tiny tree, and little kids are challenged to find him. If they spot him, they sometimes get a balloon and a piece of candy. It’s like halloween and Christmas combined. (My two favorite holidays!!!!) And the party happens for weeks! All the way until January 6th.

This irreverent conflation of the grotesque and the divine is, of course, genius and silly and exactly what it means to be human–but if you’re stuck thinking WTF…

Wikipedia offers some possible reasons (my favorites are 3, 4, 5) for placing “the shitter” in a scene which is widely considered holy:

  1. The Caganer, by creating feces, is fertilizing the Earth. 
  2. Many modern caganers represent celebrities and authority figures. By representing them with their pants down, the caganer serves as a leveling device to bring the mighty down.
  3. As to the charge of blasphemy, as Catalan anthropologist Miguel Delgado has pointed out, the grotesque, rather than a negation of the divine may actually signify an intensification of the sacred, for what could be more grotesque than the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, a bloody public torture and execution as the defining moment in the story of Christianity?
  4. The Caganer represents the “other.” He is our inner rebel, and that’s why it is not surprising that it was the most beloved figure among the children and, above all, the adolescents, who were already beginning to feel rather like outsiders at the family celebration. (Agustí Pons)
  5. The caganer seems to provide a counterpoint to so much ornamental hullabaloo, so much emotive treacle, so much contrived beauty. (Josep Murgades)

Now, before you judge and think about how righteous we are since we don’t put poop in our manger, consider this:


Santa isn’t very popular in Spain. The holy nativity scene is by far the most revered Christmas tradition in Spain, and the focus is on eating, drinking, and being merry with family. It’s a time to celebrate the birth of baby Jesus, NOT to trample each other as we shop the bigger better deals. As for presents, children receive them on January 6th–Three King’s Day. The night before, on the 5th, the kids put their shoes on the windowsills and fill them with straw, carrots, and barley for the Kings’ donkeys. The kids particularly love King Baltasar as it’s thought he’s the one that bears the gifts. But that’s right before school starts back and the poor kiddos have little time to play with their toys. So now Santa has gained a little popularity as he gets to deliver one–just ONE–present on Christmas day. 

To get in the Christmas spirit, we walked the Barrio Gotico (Gothic Quarter) and visited the Catedral de Barcelona. The cathedral was constructed from the 13th to 15th centuries, with the principal work done in the 14th century.


In the late 19th century, the neo-gothic façade was constructed over the nondescript exterior that was common to Catalan churches. 





I grew up behind Saint Lawrence church; in fact, the churchyard and my backyard shared a chainlink fence. (Confession: when my parents told me to pick up the dog poop, I just hucked it over the fence). I loved the daily bells that echoed through the neighborhood, marking the passage of time and summoning my sense of awe. I was baptized Catholic (thanks to Meme) and insisted against my parents’ will on getting my First Holy Communion, but I was never a devout believer. I tried, but the story didn’t resonate with me like the bells, the stained glass or the smell of frankincense and myrrh. 

For me, the magic was in the mystery, the ritual, the visceral–not the scripture.img_0678img_0668img_0665

Interestingly, the etymology of religion comes from the Latin “religare”, meaning to bind. And yet…

People fight and kill over the stories of religion, but the beauty created by devotion and faith is timeless and universal. As sure as we all shit, humans revere beauty: One grounds us to earth, the other lifts our spirits. So why can’t those two truths be enough for us to bind together? img_0673img_0669
Below is the Virgin of Montserrat (in Catalan: Mare de Déu de Montserrat). She is the Patron Saint of Catalonia, an honor she shares with Saint George. 

The famed image once bore the inscription ”Negra Sum Sed Formosa” (Latin: I am Black, but Beautiful).

She is one of the many Black Madonnas in Europe. 


The LED candles were a travesty. A pooping figurine? Bring it on. Fake candles? Sacrilege!!!! You don’t get to smell the beeswax and sulfur and watch people’s prayers flicker and melt, and wonder, for what did they pray? Will their pleas be heard? 


Afterwards, we walked around the Gothic Quarter…


Soleil saw these kids lined up for a photo and thought…why not? img_0701img_0705

After winding through dark and narrow medieval passageways, we popped out into a plaza with giant snow-globes.

Barcelona is so dreamlike, so whimsical, so willing to blow a bubble of imagination around reality. I see these snow globes and think how our perceptions are made of glass and artifice, warped by the contours of our mind, designed to keep us safe and confined, but really, aren’t they so fragile, so easy to shatter? What would happen if the bubbles burst? What if the walls that separated “us” and “them” disappeared? 


We were going to have lunch at the 4 Gats (meaning Four Cats in Catalan), because it was Picasso’s and other famous modernists’ old watering hole, but we couldn’t find tapas to suit everyone’s tastes. Let’s just say you have to be an adventurous eater. At least I got to soak in the ambience for a minute and capture a few shots. 




The last couple of photos are of Sant Felip Neri church and its accompanying plaza, with two acacias and a simple fountain. 

The façade of the church, as you can see in the below photo, is disfigured by one of the many bombings that took place in 1938 during the Spanish civil war. 

The convent had been being used to house evacuated children, so when the underground part of the church collapsed after a bomb, about 30 children died. When rescuers went in to save any survivors, another bomb dropped, raising the death toll to 42. 

Of course, after the war, Franco’s regime re-wrote history in his favor. He attributed the pockmarked walls of the church to anarchist firing squads who had supposedly executed priests in the square. This “fake truth” was repeated over and over, a term called “gas lighting,” until the people believed it.

After Franco’s fall, the truth was finally redeemed. 


In 2007 Barcelona City Council installed a bronze plaque with a simple inscription;

In memory of the victims of the bombardment of Sant Felip Neri.

Here died 42 people – the majority children – due to the actions of Franco’s airforce on the 30th of January 1938.

When I was younger, I never understood how people could so easily be bamboozled by propaganda. How were people so willing to believe lies and march blindly toward the wrong side of history? Who possibly could’ve supported Franco? Who possibly could’ve supported Hitler? But now I understand how it happens. In my own country, truth has lost its intrinsic value and been reduced to an expendable commodity. Fake news is rampant–we’re being gaslighted like never before–and people have lost the ability to discern truth from double-speak. My biggest question these days is, how do we restore a common reality? How do we burst our Republican and Democratic bubbles so that the walls that divide us disappear? How can we root our character in ethics instead of populist rhetoric? I know I’m filled with too much hatred these days; I’m feeling judgy and angry, stuck in a post-election lingering depression. 

So maybe instead of saying, “I’m a liberal,” I’ll start saying I believe in kindness and generosity. I believe in adhering to truth and justice, protecting those who are vulnerable, and giving equal opportunity. I respect life on this planet. I believe in making reparations for wrongs. I believe we are all part of the same eco-system, and I pledge my allegiance to earth, not nations, to earthlings, not humans. I wonder how many “conservatives” believe in the same things? Maybe if we define ourselves by our ethics and values instead of our politics, we can find common ground. 


And on a silly note….

Happy New Year America! Look who earned the honor of being the new celebrity shitter! 🙂



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  1. Beautiful pics and brings me back to Spain when I visited a decade ago. By the way, don’t kid yourself: I was in Barcelona when they were having riots during election season. I recall looking out a restaurant window while eating my paella dinner watching throngs of protesters and police holding shields and batons. People throwing things everywhere. It was a bit scary, but we thought the police were hot!

    • I think I’d actually appreciate some civil disobedience in our country. We could use some impassioned citizens fighting for fair elections 🙂 And I think protesters are hot, and revolutionaries…meow meow! Except I don’t want the bloody kind. We need to re-invent that shit to be less gory. These days in Spain they have Pablo Iglesias, the leader of the fairly new leftist party Podemos (an evolution of the indignados) that has upset the two-party system and invigorated more grassroot, circle-group participation in politics. So far I’m very interested….it would be kind of like if Jon Stewart spliced himself with Robin Williams in Dead Poet Society and became the leader of a sexy new political party.

  2. Oh wow.

  3. Awesome!!! Thanks for sharing!!

  4. One of my favorite in the world.

  5. Lucky! Ever make it to Les quinzey Nits?

  6. 4 and 5 are my favorite ones . Your last statement starting with ;So maybe instead of saying, “I’m a liberal,”……reminds me of Robin Hood .

    • Oh I love you for always getting my line of thinking. Remember when we were 22 and I went on a date and you did my homework for my Shakespeare class? I still have the notes you took. xoxoxo.

  7. Can’t wait to go back there!!

  8. I love the Dumpster taking a dump. It’s fitting.

  9. Thank you for sharing. Lots of great sites and experiences. I resonate with you on the Catholic thing…the most I missed after leaving the church was its rituals.

    Happy New Year!

    • There’s an Episcopalian church in Pasadena (Los Angeles) called All Saints that is just as gorgeous as any Catholic church, and they have all the same rituals EXCEPT they’re super liberal–I’m talking African-American lesbian priests (hell yeah! 🙂 –and always have incredibly inspirational speakers (think Nelson Mandela) and are doing great philanthropic works without the missionary aspect in developing countries. When I’m in LA, I go get my stained glass, choir hymns, and incense fix there! Happy New Year to you too!!!!

  10. I loved what you said in the last paragraph!

    • Your comment just inspired me to write an article that I’m going to pitch to Solo-ish at the Washington Post. Thank you!!!! If it gets accepted, I’ll let you know. (Fingers Crossed)

  11. I have speaking similar sentiments for months. I thought Americans were immune, more intelligent, could see through a dangerous huckster.

  12. (Off-topic: How long are you in Barcelona?)

  13. I think once a person says, ” I’m a liberal” or “I’m a conservative ” the other person in conversation of the opposite puts up a blind wall of rejection to what ever is said. As if they do not want their own thoughts to be poisoned by what the person has to say.

  14. You are wise beyond this world and a kindred spirit in your thoughts, perspective, and desires for our world. Please never stop sharing your insights. The world needs more people like you.

  15. Beautifully written, Stevie. ❤

  16. So well put that I’m reposting it Stevie ~ thanks!!! 🙂

  17. When I was young I met communists who had fought for the Royalists in Spain. It is hard to fight on the losing side, but you must take pride in yourself, in your actions. Time changes everything. You have to believe in people.

  18. You are gorgeous inside and out so many people feel the exact same way you do xxooo

  19. You are a beautiful, brilliant person. Start keeping a diary of your thoughts to give your daughter one day.

  20. Erin, what a brilliant idea! You can have them woven among photos from your adventures and made into a book for her.

  21. That’s even better idea Karen Lynne!

  22. Well said. I was wondering about the pledge of allegiance as a tool of mass indoctrination in nationalism by our government run schools. Maybe we should pledge to serve all or pledge to help those needing help or pledge to be our best selves or just not to pledge at all, at least until we are of a sufficient age to comprehend what we are being forced to say.

    • I absolutely think it’s a form of indoctrination. I was lucky enough to go to a small French private school from 1st to 9th grade, so I quite literally never pledged allegiance growing up. I’m grateful for that. I can’t say for certain but I believe that “non-allegiance” allows me to see past the blight of nationalism and think more clearly. I don’t freak out if someone burns a flag (made in China), but I do freakout if someone’s 1st amendment right’s are breached. In other words, I am able to hold allegiance in my heart for the values we hold dear, not the flag, not even the country per se. If this country no longer strives to hold the values of freedom, equality, and tolerance–and make reparations for mistakes of the past (slavery, geopolitical warfare, foreign assignations, etc) by increasing transparency and amending policy– I wouldn’t feel pride for it. Why should I? Sadly, it seems to be going down a scary path, one far astray from the one I give my allegiance. I hope we can all pull it together….

  23. Amen

  24. Well said my friend

  25. As a full time nomad/RVer, I follow a lot of blogs, but this was by far my favorite holiday post. I think I’m going to memorize your alternative response to “I’m a Liberal.” So much more in line with standing up for what feels right rather than boiling it down to an often misunderstood label. Thank you, and Feliz Año Nuevo to you and your family.

    • Thank you Suzanne! For better or worse, I had a lot of conflicting feelings and thoughts percolating through my heart and brain this year–and Barcelona was a wonderful place to consider what is base and beautiful about humanity.

      In regards to your question, how long can you extend a Grand Canyon post….as long as you can!!!! So far in my life, I’ve had the immense fortune of spending 36 days (in total) on self-guided raft trips through the Canyon, and we’re gearing up for another 10 days this summer. There’s a crazy kind of magic there. Thanks for sharing it.

      Happy New Year to you two!

  26. Hey! Thanks for the great post. Loved it! I have to say I agree with the fake candles and when I was in Sagrada Familia I couldn’t help myself thinking if we are no longer capable of such great things as Gaudi was capable of. Sometimes it seems that we cannot even properly respect the thins people have done… don’t know. anyways thanks for your post – loved reading it!

    • Thank you Marusa!! I appreciate the comment. And I’m glad we’re on the same team regarding real candles. I’m also for burning frankincense and myrrh in copious quantities. I like my churches to smell like churches goddammit:)

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