The Spanish autonomous region of Catalonia does Christmas differently. In Sweden’s Burning Christmas Goat, one of my holiday podcasts last year, I talked about their tradition of Tio de Nadal/Caga Tio, the shitting log. Brief recap for those of you who definitely listened: Families decorate a log for the holidays, feed it nuts (tree food) every day, then on Christmas, the children grab sticks and beat the shit out of it. Actually, though. They whack the log with sticks while singing a song that urges it to “shit, log, shit!” And then it does. An assortment of treats and presents, straight from a tree’s digestive tract.
Caga Tio is a wild tradition, but it’s a little crude, and to use it to define the whole holiday season in Catalonia is disingenuous and rude. So today I’ll be writing about a different Catalonian Christmas tradition: the Caganer, or, in English, “the shitter”.
If you grew up somewhere where Christmas is celebrated en masse, there’s a good chance you’re at least decently familiar with nativity scenes. Y’know, the baby Jesus in a barn, surrounded by onlookers and livestock. There’s usually Mary and Joseph, the wise men, a goat, some kings, and, in Catalonia, a bare-bottomed man squatting over a pile of his own excrement. Season’s greetings!
This guy is the Caganer, and, yeah, he’s real. A time-honored tradition that dates as far back as the 18th century, or “don’t know”, depending on who you ask. There are no reliable statistics regarding Catalan caganer ownership, but the sources I’ve seen suggest they’re pretty popular. Unfortunately, the “why” on this subject is about as lost to history as the question “how long”. Out of all the Catalonians I’ve read interviews with, including among them some “caganer enthusiasts”, no one is able to nail down even the simplest history for the shitting man. There’s no folk tale, no alternative view of biblical canon. It’s just… accepted as tradition. And hey, that’s fine. I’ve got my own history with famously story-less traditions.
Still, of all the traditions to carry on without explanation, “guy shitting in a corner” is a pretty fun one that might just fall shy of the top ten for most of us. In an interview with the BBC, Joan Lliteras, a self-styled caganer connoisseur, posits that rural Catalonians were spurred by a legend that farmers who didn’t include a caganer among their nativity scenes would suffer a worse harvest in the coming year. Forward this shitting man to ten of your friends or have bad luck!
Lliteras is something of an expert on caganers, so much so that he’s cited in almost all of the articles I found on the subject. He clarifies in his original interview that the caganer is never a main character in the Nativity scenes he visits — that would be disrespectful, the collector acknowledges — but that he hangs out, instead, in the background, usually in a corner or under a tree. The caganer? More like the fertilizer. Where’s my eco-gang at?
That said, there’s a limit to how much credit I’ll give the caganer. Speaking with the BBC, one woman said, “It was the only thing the little shepherd boy had to give the Baby Jesus, so it’s not at all disrespectful, it’s a great gift.”
Look: some gifts aren’t worth giving. If you find yourself with nothing but human waste and wrapping paper on Christmas Eve, consider resorting to other means of present procurement. Ask a friend. Give the wrapping paper alone. Postpone until next year. Maybe anything except the alternative. Listen, we all give a little bit of leeway when receiving gifts from children — we know they’re talentless, and we expect it — but we have to draw the line somewhere, and for me, it’s “literal shit”.
Moving on, others suggest the background of the caganer is holier still. Qualifying them, Brandon Ambrosino writes for Vox, “Christianity teaches that in the birth of Jesus, God became fully human — which, of course, means he would’ve defecated regularly.” This is a strong start, no qualms. He continues, “Including a caganer in a nativity scene, he says, is one way Christians can remind themselves of the full humanity of Jesus.”
Some might argue the existing Christian canon underscores Jesus’s humanity enough without the inclusion of a “the more she drank, the more she shat” passage.
The Vox piece continues, explaining the argument that the modern Christmas tradition is a “sanitized” version of what would have actually occurred. Today’s nativity scenes show a comparatively luxurious scene populated by kings and wise men, where the Mediterranean depictions of old would have included more common people, such as farmers, weavers, and shepherds. Among this crowd, some argue, the caganer fits right in. At the crescendo of this piece, we finally receive an argument that makes sense: if you’re going to include the farmers and the shepherds, you might as well include the guy taking a shit.
Make no mistake, I’m not on a crusade against the caganer. I think it’s a wonderfully entertaining tradition, and a relatively harmless one at that. As far as traditions go, you could get a lot worse.
And not understanding exactly where the caganer comes from, in my opinion, adds to the captivating mystique of it all. Where holiday traditions go, even in the face of Krampuses and Gävle Goats, hanging pickles, and KFC, it seems so… incongruent. Something that seems to belong two hundred years ago about as much as it seems to fit in today. And yet, it does. As far as I can tell, the caganer is tremendously popular in Catalonia. Caganer makers are busy crafting the little red-hatted Catalonian peasant, the most popular design, but they’re also hard at work creating a variety of more modern-faced defecators, modeled after celebrities and political figures. From what I’ve read, the Pope and Elizabeth II are remarkably popular in caganer form. At least a few years ago, Barack Obama was too.
Nowadays, you can buy your own caganer online. A cursory look at one website reveals you can pick up Caganer Jon Snow for €14.00. Barack Obama and Donald Trump are both available for €19.36. If you’re looking for a budget option, defecating Yoda can be yours for just €12.
So what’s the moral here? More likely than not, it’s that if you go looking for a lesson in a story about a pooping figurine, you’re going to end up disappointed. Search instead for a type of joy paralleled only by the children beating a bowel movement out of dead vegetation on Christmas morning. Or, at the very least, the relief of a man who couldn’t wait until he was out of earshot of the baby Jesus before finalizing his digestion.
Happy holidays, y’all.
- A Traditional Nativity Scene, Catalan Style (BBC)
- Catalonian Nativity Scenes Feature a Man Pooping in the Manger Scene’s Corner (Smithsonian)
- El Caganer (Atlas Obscura)
- Caganer — the strangest, most scatological part of Catalan nativity scenes — explained (Vox)
- Odd Holiday Traditions: Caganers (Chicago Tribune)