Imagine in your head this scene, it’s Christmas time and you are in Spain walking down the streets. Suddenly, you notice a strange figurine rotating on the stand in a souvenir shop window. Below, there’s a price tag with a name – Caganer.
“What on earth is El Caganer?”, you’re wondering. “What does it represent? Is it picking up something from the ground? Is it collecting chestnuts?” you ask yourself.
“Wait a minute! Is he doing what I think he’s doing? That can’t be possible! After a moment of confusion, you’re rubbing your eyes realizing that it is actually a figurine with its pants down doing its business! It must be Christmas in Catalonia.
You decide to enter the shop and ask.
What is a Caganer?
The first encounter with El Caganer can be a curious experience. We are pretty sure that those of you who had the opportunity to see it in person can’t forget it. The peculiarity and uniqueness of this nativity figurine make it memorable.
El Caganer is a Catalan word that we translate as ‘the pooper’ or ‘the shitter’ (pardon our French!). It is a highly popular Christmas pooper figurine that is in the act of defecating in Catalan nativity scenes, (pessebres in Catalan). Yes, defecating!
Here’s a little context. The nativity scenes in Catalonia are a bit different from the rest of the nativity scenes in English-speaking countries. They tend to represent a whole city rather than just the manger scene.
Pessebres are pastoral scenes, which usually include the typical manger, along with the farm animals, shepherds with their sheep, angels, the Three Wise Men with their camels, and of course, a Caganer. This peculiar character is usually hidden behind a tree or a bush.
You will find different types of Caganer figurines. However, the most traditional statuettes wear a typical Catalan hat called barretina, a white peasant shirt, and hold a pipe in their mouth.
Over time, the designs of El Caganer have changed tremendously. Nowadays, we also find Caganer figurines that represent famous people like politicians, professional athletes, actors, musicians, or even works of art! Nobody is safe from Caganer’s representation!
A Popular Tradition
This tradition is very common in Catalonia and other areas that share the Catalan culture. If you travel further north, you will find El Caganer in Andorra and Southern France.
However, if you decide to go to Valencia, you’ll find it under the name cagones. But not only here! The pooper figurine can also be found in other parts of Spain such as Murcia or in Portugal (called cagões) or in Naples, Italy (pastore che caca).
Most Catalan families practice this custom at Christmas, having their kids find the hidden statuette in the pessebre. Although it might sound rude to religious people, this custom is performed with no intention to make fun of anyone.
The origin of El Caganer is not very clear but there are different theories.
According to Amics del Caganers, the funny character may have been incorporated into the pessebre at the end of the 18th century, during the Baroque period.
We all know that Baroque in Spain and throughout Europe was a cultural and artistic movement characterized by exaggerated realism. Such realism was expressed through costumbrista scenes related to city life. This included any type of activity, like people going to the bathroom, which made this scene not so uncomfortable to see.
What does a Caganer Represent?
Just as its origins, the meaning of Caganer is not quite clear either.
We can say that the most common belief is that El Caganer represents a symbol of fertility and good fortune.
According to some legends, if people in the countryside place this figurine in the nativity scene, they would have a good harvest the next year.
The connection is not far from reality, since the Caganer is giving back to the earth what was taken from it while fertilizing the pessebre land.
Caganer’s Popularity Abroad
Thanks to its new designs, the fame of the Caganer figurines has grown lately. In an article about Caganer that Merca 2 published, it was mentioned that the demand increased after turning politicians into Caganers and especially most likely after the creation of US President Obama’s figurine in 2008.
The New York Times also had an article in December 2016, in which President Obama’s Caganer was named “the best-selling figurine of a foreigner”.
Did you know that Caganer figurines are popular even beyond Catalonia and Europe? Approximately, half of the statuettes shipped by the largest distributor, go to the United States, as reported by The New York Times in 2016.
In December 2015, La Vanguardia lists the United States as the main buyer online. The surprising fact is that it is ahead of Spain (21,4%) and other European countries (25,9% including Germany, England, and France).
What better way to display the culture than turning a pooper figurine into a giant statue! This is exactly what happened in Barcelona in 2010. As seen in a video published by Europa Press, a giant ‘pooper’ was built in Maremagnum mall, breaking a Guinness World Record for the world’s largest ‘pooper’ statue.
As you can imagine, either people love these figurines or hate them. In reality, most people enjoy them, but still, there have been a few controversial cases.
The Osama Bin Laden figurine is one such case, as found in the Spanish newspaper El País. A complaint was: “A un personaje tan siniestro no hay que hacerle propaganda” (We can not promote such a sinister person).
Another example is the Moreneta statuette (Monserrat’s Virgin). It was criticized by both the Catalan church and a Catholic organization for being disrespectful and offensive to the Catholic religion, according to La Vanguardia. The Catholic organization even filed a lawsuit, as stated by the Spanish international news agency Agencia Efe.
Tió de Nadal
Caganer is not the only ‘pooper’ Christmas character in Catalonia. There is also Tió de Nadal (Christmas log), also known as Caga Tió (pooping log). This is another Christmas custom known in Catalonia and other Spanish regions that poops Christmas presents for kids!
It is a log with a painted face that also wears a barretina. Children ‘feed’ the log for weeks to make it grow. Then, on Christmas day or Christmas Eve, they hit it with a stick while singing Caga Tió songs (see below), and consequently, it will ‘poop’ presents.
Caga Tió Songs
Avellanes i mató,
Si no cagues bé
Et daré un cop de bastó.
Hazelnuts and mató cheese,
If you don't poop well,
I'll hit you with a stick,
Tió de Nadal,
No caguis arengades,
Que són massa salades
Que són més bons!"
Log of Christmas,
Don't poop herrings,
Which are too salty,
Which are much better!
Another figurine that you can find in the stores of Catalonia is a urinating shepherd. However, despite the peculiarity of this character, it is not as popular.
Nobody can deny that these peculiar figurines are just amazing. They are so unique that it makes it hard not to turn around and take a second look to find out what the heck they’re doing.
On the other hand, it is something you will need to be familiar with if you go to Catalonia or other places with Catalan traditions. They are part of the culture.
If you buy one for yourself or give one as a gift, there is no doubt it will stand out. Your friends and family might even ask you about these funny little Caganer figurines. Tell them that, even though some people may find them offensive, in reality, it is just a funny way to represent a nativity figurine. What a good way to make people laugh and have fun!
The pooper figurine is available online so you can show off yours at Christmas!
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