The very first thing the Christmas season brings to my mind is, well, fecal matter. Don’t blame me, blame the Spaniards. In Plasencia, the council commissions an enormous Nativity scene, el Belén, every year. (Belén is Spanish for Bethlehem). My first Spanish Christmas, as I walked around el Belén taking in the scene – the angels, the Magi, Joseph and Mary, the baby Jesus, the shepherds, the camels – I did a double take when I spotted a little figurine of a peasant.
He was placed in one of the corners, far away from the main action. He was squatting, trousers down around his ankles, taking a crap. Not only was the figurine dropping a deuce, but there was also an adorable little brown pile of poop behind him. I was thrilled. Somebody has vandalized the Belén! Then Lola informed me that el cagón, the Crapper or the Shitting Man, is a popular figure in Spanish Nativity scenes.
The Crapper is fairly common in manger scenes across parts of Spain, Portugal, Italy, and France. Some believe el cagón is a symbol of fertility (enriching the soil by defecation), and others believe el cagón is meant to belittle authority figures. In Catalonia, where the Crapper is known as el caganer, the defecating figurines represent well-known politicians, celebrities, athletes, and Spanish royalty. (Pooping Donald Trump and Pope Francis figurines are quite popular in the shops this year.)Another theory is that el cagón is placed in the manger scene as a way of showing that one can never be fully prepared for the arrival of Jesus. I quite like the simple explanation put forward by the Catalan writer/translator Josep Murgades. And I quote: “The caganer seems to provide a counter-point to so much ornamental hullabaloo, so much emotive treacle, so much contrived beauty.”
We had a cagón on display in our apartment for a couple of years. It was the only Christmas ornament we owned. Then I sent it to the late Lisa B. Falour, of Bikini Girl zine fame, in France. She told me the French have a similar potty humor character named Père la Colique (“Father Cholic”).
But it’s hard to beat the Catalan fervor for irreverent and subversive behavior. There was an uproar in 2005 when the council of Barcelona displayed a Nativity scene which, horror of horrors, excluded el caganer. A campaign was started (Salvem el caganer, or Save the Crapper) and the following year the figure was reinstated. And in December 2010, the MareMagnum Shopping Centre in Barcelona received a Guinness World Record for displaying the largest el caganer in the world. The defecating figure, designed and built by Fabregat, measured 6 meters (19 ft 8 in) in height and 2 meters (6 ft 6 in) at its widest point.
Happy Holidays, everyone!