Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Caganers: A Wonderfully Weird Christmas Tradition in Catalunya, Spain

¨Dung is no saint, but where it falls it works miracles.¨  - Spanish proverb

The first time I saw a Caganer (which literally translates to ¨crapper¨) in a nativity scene, I was nothing short of shocked. The squatting figurine, a farmer caught with his pants down and a load of excrement behind him, struck me as both sacrilegious and distasteful. The placid look on the little guy´s face only made the matter worse. I couldn´t believe what I was seeing. I remember thinking, ¨Tradition or not, isn´t this defecating figurine making a mockery out of both the nativity and religion?¨

For some Catalans the answer to this question is, ¨Yes¨ but for the vast majority it is a philosophical and slightly amused, ¨No.¨ Apart from being a tradition, the caganer is a symbol of fertility and good luck. It´s ¨contribution¨ to mother earth enriches her and helps ensure a good harvest for the following year. As a matter of fact, to exclude the caganer from the nativity scene is to court misfortune for you and yours in the year to come.

Caganer Etiquette 101
That said, as cherished and essential as the caganer is to the Catalan Christmas tradition, observers should know it was never meant to be a central character. The traditional pessebre, a miniature model of the town of Bethleham at the time of Christ´s birth - which is complete with outlying buildings, the surrounding countryside and a host of typical villagers - is centered around the manger scene. It is considered disrespectful to position the caganer anywhere near center stage. For this reason, it can usually be found under a bridge or behind a bush, quietly attending to nature´s call. Children often make a game out of trying to spot the hidden figurine in the public, often huge, nativity displays.

Putting Caganers in Perspective
There is still some debate as to when this tradition first started, but most experts agree it was in full swing by the18th century. In terms of who started it, a Catalan friend of mine theorized that it most likely grew out of a practical joke. His guess was that someone slipped the first caganer into a nativity scene simply to see how long it would take other people to notice it and how they would react once they did.

Practical joke or not, it's safe to say that the Catalan response to the first caganer was largely a positive one. After all, Catalans are notoriously scatalogical and in those days human waste, like that of all animals, was just another nontoxic fertilizer. Moreover, bathrooms were not exactly in vogue, which meant villagers who worked outdoors regularly went to go to the bathroom outdoors, making the caganer a natural part of any truly bucolic scene. Today most Catalans are all about preserving this quirky tradition which honestly reflects that part of their agrarian past.

Caganer experts go one step further. They argue that the defecating figurine humanizes the nativity scene, making observers contemplate not just the miracle of Christ´s birth, but also the enormity of his sacrifice. Jesus is, after all, a divine being confined to a human body. The fact that He is subject to the same biological urges as the rest of the human race is both profound and ironic.
Model of a stable for the pessebre
Celebrity Caganers
Whether you love them or hate them, when it comes to Christmas in Barcelona caganers are here to stay. The figurines are a favorite with tourists and locals alike. Moreover, caganer vendors are important fixtures in all of the holiday markets.

Despite their reverence for tradition, Catalans accept that the image of caganers has changed with the times. The classic caganer, a humble farmer clad in clothes typical of Catalunya, has been usurped by a host of celebrity imitators. Nowadays everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Lionel Messi can be found crouched down doing the deed. Every year one of the top manufacturers in Spain, www.caganer.com, launches new additions. Amongst this year´s releases were Princess Middleton, Pope Francis, Yoda, Bob Marley and the Angry Bird. With so many of the rich and famous clamoring for this minor role, the competition to win our hearts is fierce. Still, there are some clear favorites in the race as we close out 2013.

Caganers for kids
Famous caganers
Previous top-sellers Queen Elizabeth II and President Obama are currently running neck and neck. Santa Claus, Francois Hollande, Darth Vader and Albert Einstein - all strong performers in the past - are sure to be close behind. The kids´ category is less easy to call, though strong sellers are likely to follow established trends which favor superheroes and cartoon characters. Think Spiderman and Peppa Pig.

Although celebrity caganers are more expensive than their nonfamous counterparts, shoppers seem to consider the difference in cost well worth it. Prices range from 10 to 17 euros per figurine, with caganers for kids averaging around 12 euros a piece.

A Memorable Gift
Still trying to come up with a holiday gift for that special someone who already has everything? Look no further. You can order a personlized caganer in their honor at www.caganer.com. It´s a gift that´s sure to be remembered.

As for me, I am finally used to the caganer and fully expect to have my own once I´ve joined the ranks of the rich and famous. 

Click this link for a  file of pictures of famous celebrity caganers, 
including Obama, the British royal family and FC Carcelona. 

Windup Barca caganer doing flips
Cost: 3.25 euros
Carrer Ripoll, 21, Barcelona