Barcelona in the Details Part IV: Caganers

There are a number of curious Christmas customs in Catalonia that outsiders find interesting, or even bizarre. As we grow closer to Advent I thought it only appropriate to write about some of these, which make up part of the rich tapestry of details one finds when living or spending time in Barcelona. Today’s topic is the infamous “caganer”, which (as politely as possible) might be translated as “the pooper”.

Generally speaking, Catalans are a business-like people who tend to act with restraint rather than passion. They have more in common temperamentally with the Milanese than they do with the Madrileños. However, this typical restraint goes right out the window when it is time to talk about…poop. They can’t get enough of the stuff, particularly during holidays.

One aspect of this defecation obsession is the caganer. Catalonia has long had a passion for building elaborate Nativity scenes at Christmastime, which I intend to treat in a future post. Unique to the Catalan version of this custom however, is the figure of the caganer: a man, hidden somewhere in the display (not near the manger scene itself) and dressed in traditional Catalan peasant costume, squatting with his trousers around his ankles, and having a good poop. No self-respecting Catalan would consider a Nativity scene to be complete without at least one caganer.

Now you may very well ask yourself, “Why on earth would they put that in a Nativity scene?” You would be quite right to do so. To be honest, I have absolutely no idea why this is done – and yet it just seems so right.

There is a children’s story that says the caganer was a shepherd boy who desperately had to “go”, and nearly missed the opportunity to worship the Baby Jesus – a sort of scatological version of the “Little Drummer Boy” story. However, I think this tale was more likely made up subsequent to the practice, which in Catalonia dates from around the 17th century. Certainly it is wonderfully good fun, especially when you are a child, to go searching for the caganer in a Nativity scene and laugh when you find him. It keeps the tableau of the miracle more grounded, as Christ comes to Earth among poor, real human beings, and dispels that grandiose and gilded quality which St. Francis of Assisi wanted Nativity scenes to avoid.

A more modern custom developed after the Spanish Civil War, in which caganer makers would offer caganers not just of Catalan peasants, but of other types of people. So when you wander into one of the artisan ceramics shops in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, you can find pooping policemen, pooping nuns, pooping chefs, pooping bishops, pooping devils, etc. More recently still, some of these manufacturers have been creating caganers that are not as attractive as the simple originals, but are amusing nonetheless as they portray famous figures such as Fidel Castro or Carla Bruni. And of course, this being an election year, you can even find one of the Obamassiah.

Thus the humble caganer is one of the fun details about life in Barcelona, and throughout Catalonia for that matter. However, he is not the only example of the prevailing Catalan interest in the subject. Next up in this series, the equally infamous Catalan “pooping Yule log”, a kind of trogloditic piñata known as the “caga tió”.

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