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Christmas was kind of ruined for us last year. Oh, the turkey came out fine. Perfectly, in fact. Dressing suitably moist, gravy chunky with giblets. We’d remembered the umeboshi at the Asian grocery store. There is no way a cold turkey sandwich on Christmas Day’s evening achieves its sublimity without these deliciously piquant, salty plums.*
And you’ll remember St. Louis had that wonderful snowfall last year; several inches on the ground on Christmas morning, like something out of Currier & Ives print. And enough time, once the turkey was in the oven, to venture out on the hill behind the house and carve grooves into the drifts on out sled along with the neighborhood kids—and all, including us, avoided the buckeye tree halfway down that can, if one is not careful or is particularly unlucky, put a serious damper on the festivities.
But here’s the deal: Christmas Day afternoon, feet up on the coffee table, we’re reading our e-mail; we’re right at that pleasant interval when lunch is still a happy, no longer-too uncomfortable memory, and that cold turkey sandwich is just beginning to become a consideration. And a friend sends a link: a story on the weirdest Christmas traditions in the world. And we read it and realize Christmas just hasn’t been what it could have been for us.
Because, darn it all, we do not have a tio de Nadal.
It’s a log, a thick branch, really. Couple of feet long. Provided with a face on one end, propped up as a tripod with a couple of wooden “legs,” and covered with a blanket. Tio de Nadal are a tradition in the mountainous Catalonia region of Spain where, presumably, excitement is hard to come by. Or at least it makes its appearance in a strange form. Like these log figures, with their elvish faces and blankets, and which are placed in the living rooms of Catalans rarin’ go get into the holiday spirit. On the first day of Advent, nuts, dried fruits, and other snacks are placed in front of the tio de Nadal. Sort of like leaving out cookies and milk for Santa. This goes on every night until Christmas. Then, Christmas morning, the fun starts. And unless your household inflicts an annual assault and battery on St. Nick, that’s where the comparison ends.
The Catalan kids gather round, and while we here in the US are just going through the boring old motions of emptying our stockings, in Catalonia, they’re hauling out sticks. Whacking sticks.
There may be a few readers who are not fluent in Catalan, a language which is a combination of French, Spanish, and Mortadella. For them, we’ll translate the charming song the youngsters sing on Christmas morn, as they deliver a beat-down to the tio de Nadal:
“Poop, you log, you log of Christmas,” they sing.
“Don’t poop herrings, which are too salty.
Poop turron candy,
Which is sweet!”
After they flail away on the back of the tio de Nadal for a few more minutes, they pull off the blanket. And there are the presents.
Now that, my friend, is a holiday tradition.
Obviously, it was too late last year to get in on this. When our wife finally allowed the Christmas tree to be taken down, though (this usually occurs sometime just before Easter), we sawed off a section and put it away. This month, another Yuletide season upon us, we brought it out, used some smaller branches to give it a face and however you say “voila!” in Catalan, we’ve got our very own tio de Nadal.
So if you’ve got no other plans Christmas morning, come on over. We’ve got the Riesling and the umeboshi. Just bring a stick.
*Umeboshi—we fully acknowledge this seems at least as bizarre as the tio de Nadal but trust us—may be the most perfect accompaniment to a turkey sandwich since a halbtrocken Riesling went into its bottle. They’re not really plums; apricots, actually. Pickled. Salty-sour, they define the word “piquant.” Be careful; the pits are still in them. But try nibbling on them with your sandwich and you’ll find they play beautifully with the mayo and turkey. You can get them at any good Asian grocery store. Umeboshi is the Japanese term; if you can’t find them, try asking for li hing mui, the Cantonese equivalent.