It took a very special kind of mind to conjure up the idea of introducing a scatological theme into the nativity scene. Somewhere, sometime in the distant past, an anonymous Spaniard said to his mates, “I know how to brighten up our display. Let’s put the queen around the side of the stable.” Somebody else chipped in with the idea that, just to brighten things up, Her Royal Highness could be taking a dump, and so the caganer tradition was born.
“A caganer is a small statue found in Catelonia, in neighbouring areas with Catalan culture such as Andorra, and in other parts of Spain, Portugal and Italy,” says Wikipedia. “The figure is depicted in the act of defecation. Caganer is Catalan for ‘Pooper.” In other words, a caganer is a statuette of a person having a crap, which seems thoroughly inappropriate for what is usually an extremely sacred situation.
Wikipedia again: “In Catalinia, as well as in Spain and in most of Italy and Southern France, traditional Christmas decorations consist of a large model of the city of Bethlehem, similar to the nativity scenes of the English-speaking world but encompassing the entire city rather than just a manger scene. The caganer is a particular feature of modern Catalan nativity scenes, and is also found in other parts of Spain and south-western Europe, including Salamanca, Murcia, Naples and Portugal. Accompanying Mary, Joseph, Jesus, the shepherds and company, the caganer is often tucked away in a corner of the model, typically nowhere near the manger scene.”
The motivation for inserting an image of a celebrity performing the unspeakable into a highly religious setting is uncertain, but Wikipedia posts a few views on the matter.
“Possible reasons for placing a man who is in the act of excreting waste in a scene which is widely considered holy include:
– perceived humour
– finding the caganer is a fun game, especially for children
– the cagener, by creating faeces, is fertilising the Earth. However, this is probably a posteriori explanation, and few cite this reason for including the caganer in the nativity scene.
– The caganer represents the equality of all people: regardless of status, race, or gender, everyone defecates.
– Increased naturalism of an otherwise archetypal (thus idealised) story, so that it is more believable, taken literally and seriously.
– The idea that God will manifest himself when he is ready, without regard for whether we human beings are ready or not.
– The caganer reinforces that the infant Jesus is God in human form, with all that being human implies.
I smell a distinctly politically correct rat sneaking into the debate at about the point that the children stop enjoying the “find the caganer” game, and everybody else begins fretting about equality, race, gender, and God’s disregard for our humanity. I’d scrap all of that and put my money on the sense-of-humour thing, with the kids’ “hunt the party-pooper” game running a close second.
In case any of you think the caganer craze is a recently dreamed-up uncouth fad with no place in Spanish culture, think again – the practice goes back three centuries, and is still evolving. “The Catalans have modified this tradition somewhat since the 1940s. In addition to the traditional caganer design, you can easily find other characters assuming the caganer position, such as nuns, devils, Santa Claus, celebrities, athletes, historical figures, politicians, Spanish royalty, and other people past and present. Just days after his election as US president in 2008, a “pooper” of Barack Obama was made available.” And here you can see a rather appropriate Tiger Woods version….
I would have thought that Christians in general and the Catholic church in particular would have objected to what many probably see as blasphemy, but the Spanish, who ignore criticism of their long-established pastime of killing cattle as painfully as possible certainly aren’t going to react to a few foreigners grumbling about some shitty little statuettes. They take their caganers very seriously. In 2005 the Barcelona city council commissioned a nativity scene sans a caganer, and unleashed a wave of protest. The flustered city fathers countered the protesters by pointing out that recently implemented by-laws made public defecation and urination illegal, but that didn’t go down too well with the irate Iberians, who retaliated with a “salvem el caganer” (save the caganer) campaign. Order was restored in 2006, when the caganer reappeared, discreetly squatting near a dry riverbed on the northern side of the nativity.
I’m not quite sure why, but I’m glad he found his way home again.