Saturday, December 04, 2004


Nothing says “Merry Christmas” like the effigy of a man defecating behind a manger.

But strange as it may seem, Christmas in Spain’s Cataluña region simply would not be Christmas without the Caganer.

A Caganer is a little figurine of a man – typically carved from wood or molded from clay – with his trousers around his ankles doing “number 2.” Catalans hide the Caganer in their private and public Christmas-time Nativity scenes, and children delight in trying to find him. This has been a tradition in the region for hundreds of years.

The “classic” Caganer is that of a bearded peasant wearing a floppy, red hat called a “barretina” and smoking a pipe. But this is not the only model. Caganers now come in all shapes and sizes; the most popular being likenesses of celebrities, politicians and sports stars – ranging from David Beckham to George W. Bush to Osama bin Laden.

Caganer spectators typically fall into one of three camps: the amused; the repulsed; and the outraged. I obviously fall into the first camp. My in-laws (curiously enough, considering their surreal senses of humor) fall into the second. Catholic groups in the US fall into the third. Allow me to elaborate on the latter.

The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights – a New York-based group representing 350,000 members – went positively ballistic in 2001 when it learned that an exhibit at a California museum by the Spanish artist Antoni Miralda featured Caganers in the forms of nuns, angels and Pope John Paul II. The CLRCR wrote a snarling letter to the museum, complaining that the exhibit was offensive to Catholics. But alas, they don’t speak on behalf of all Catholics. The Roman Catholic Church in Spain, it should be noted, doesn’t complain about Caganers. They wouldn’t dare.

So, what is the point of the Caganer? How did it come to be? I’ve read various theories about this; the most prevalent being that the Caganer symbolizes fertilization of the earth and thanks for the sustenance that it bears. Put another way, the Caganer represents the poor farmer who, having taken the earth’s agricultural bounty during the harvest, lovingly returns the favor through the gift of his own, man-made fertilizer. Sort of a stinky quid pro quo, if you will.

Now…no offense to the farmers of Cataluña – and in particular, to those who prefer to drop their loads al fresco – but this explanation strikes me as the type of pretentious baloney that one might read in a Ph.D dissertation. Fortunately, however, I have my own theory about the origins of the Caganer.

Hundreds of years ago in rural Cataluña, a poor farmer named Jordi Puig (everyone in Cataluña is named Jordi Puig) became fed up – once and for all – with the local priest and his meddling ways. The priest had, for years, forbade Jordi from eating meat on Fridays. From drinking alcohol during Lent. And then, there was that pre-marital sex thing on which all priests are so fixated. Having reached the limit of his tolerance, Jordi decided that a bit of revenge was in order.

It was December, and the priest had set up an elaborate Nativity scene in the town center. Jordi, working at his kitchen table, carved the world’s first Caganer out of a two day old chicken croquette. Under cover of night while the town slept, Jordi placed the Caganer discretely behind the three wise men’s camel.

The next morning, the priest awoke to a crowd of excited children laughing and dancing around the Nativity scene. He pushed through the crowd to see what the hub-bub was about. And what did he find? Blasphemy!!!

Well…the priest was so outraged and distraught that he was unable to cook his own meals for six months thereafter. Or maybe it was six years. You know how priests are. In any event, a Christmas-time tradition had been born.

Now, I readily admit that I have no historical evidence to support this theory. Truth be told…I made up the story last Friday while drinking a café con leche at Bar Gema.

But you must admit that it sounds a lot more plausible than that “thanking Mother Earth for her bounty” nonsense.
Posted by Hello


At 12:20 AM, Blogger marta said...

What are Americans going to think about Catalans?
But I enjoied a lot your post. You did a lot of research.
I had never heard the fertility hypothesis. My mother used to tell me that the caganer was one of the shepherds which were visited by an angel who announced them that Jesus was born. This one was busy on that moment.
But your version is much better.


At 9:45 AM, Blogger Sal DeTraglia said...

Thanks Marta. I like your mother's explanation. It is much more suitable for explaining Caganers to children. In fact, I may use it when I begin marketing my newest creation..."The Follaner."

At 2:06 PM, Blogger marta said...

Well, there must have been one in Bethlehem. But you won't dare to do it!

At 2:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Martha, I think he would!! That would be interesting to see how can he explain Ave Maria Purísima + Sin Pecado concebida + Caganer+ nuns delicatessen. Bu you can expect anything from a lawyer´s mind!!
Sor Maria del Pecado Divino (ex-nun)

At 2:42 PM, Blogger Sal DeTraglia said...

Mr. Anonymous:

I can explain it very easily. Nuns are required to take vows of poverty and celebacy. As such, the only permissible way for them to have fun is to sit in the bathroom reading gossip magazines and eating cookies. There you have it!

BTW, I am not a lawyer. I am a Risk Managing Deal Facilitator.

At 11:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My grandfather brought home from a trip abroad a carved bone or ivory figurine in a tower-like hut. All the grandchildren loved to look at it while growing up. You pull off the carved wood cover (that looks like a cylindrical stone tower, like what you'd see in a castle), and underneath is the 3-inch high ivory man, squatting and defecating a gold coin (there is a pile of such coins already underneath him). I don't know where my grandfather bought this (I always assumed Germany because his family came from Northern Germany) but now I'm wondering if this is a variation on your theme...? The carving is very beautifully done and expensive looking - this is a kind of "family treasure" (not a piece of scatalogical junk, in other words), so I'm guessing it represents some fable or local myth. Any thoughts?


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