|The Catalan / Valencian cultural domain|
A traditional Catalan caganer from the front.
A Caganer (Catalan pronunciation: [kəɣəˈne], Western Catalan: [kaɣaˈne]) is a figurine depicted in the act of defecation appearing in nativity scenes in Catalonia and neighbouring areas with Catalan culture such as Andorra, Valencia, Northern Catalonia (in southern France) and the Balearic Islands. It is most popular and widespread in these areas, but can also be found in other areas of Spain (Murcia), Portugal and southern Italy (Naples).
The name "El Caganer” literally means “the crapper” or "the shitter". Traditionally, the figurine is depicted as a peasant, wearing the traditional Catalan red cap (the "barretina") and with his trousers down, showing a bare backside, and defecating.
The exact origin of the Caganer is lost, but the tradition has existed since at least the 18th century. According to the "Friends of the Caganer" group (Amics del Caganer), it is believed to have entered the nativity scene by the late 17th- or early 18th-century, during the Baroque period. An Iberian votive deposit was found near Tornabous in the Urgell depicting a holy Iberian warrior defecating on his falcata. This began a short-lived series of polemics between the Institut d'Estudis Catalans and the Departament d'Arqueologia in the Conselleria de Cultura of the Generalitat de Catalunya as to whether the find can be regarded as a proto-caganer (which would place the origin of this tradition far earlier than previously thought) or just a pre-combat ritual.
In Catalonia, as well as in the rest of Spain and in most of Italy and Southern France, traditional Christmas decorations often consist of a large model of the city of Bethlehem, similar to the Nativity scenes of the English-speaking world but encompassing the entire city rather than just the typical manger scene. This "pessebre" is often a reproduction of a pastoral scene—a traditional Catalan "masia" (farmhouse) as the central setting with the child in a manger, and outlying scenes including a washerwoman by a river, a woman spinning, shepherds herding their sheep or walking towards the manger with gifts, the three wise men approaching on horseback, an annunciation scene with the angel and shepherds, the star pointing the way, etc. Commonly materials such as moss will be used to represent grass, with cork used to represent mountains or cliffs. Another variant is to make the setting oriental, with the wise men arriving by camel and the figures dressed accordingly.
The caganer is a particular and highly popular feature of modern Catalan nativity scenes. It is believed to have entered the nativity scene by the late 17th-early 18th century, during the Baroque period. Eminent folklorist Joan Amades called it an essential piece and the most popular figure of the nativity scene. It can also be found in other parts of southwestern Europe, including Murcia, the region just south of the Valencia in Spain (where they are called cagones), Naples (cacone or pastore che caca) and Portugal (cagões). There is a sculpture of a person defecating hidden inside the cathedral of Ciudad Rodrigo, Province of Salamanca, though this is not part of a nativity scene. Accompanying Mary, Joseph, Jesus, the shepherds and company, the caganer is often tucked away in a corner of the model, typically nowhere near the manger scene. A tradition in the Catalan Countries is to have children find the hidden figure.
Possible reasons for placing a figure representing a person in the act of excreting waste in a scene which is widely considered holy include:
- Perceived humour.
- A fun spectacle, especially for children.
- The Caganer, by creating feces, is fertilizing the Earth. According to the ethnographer, Joan Amades, it was a "customary figure in pessebres [i.e. nativity scenes] in the 19th century, because people believed that this deposit [symbolically] fertilized the ground of the pessebre, which became fertile and ensured the pessebre for the following year, and with it, the health of body and peace of mind required to make the pessebre, with the joy and happiness brought by Christmas near the hearth. Placing this figurine in the pessebre brought good luck and joy and not doing so brought adversity."
- The Caganer represents the equality of all people: regardless of status, race, or gender, everyone defecates.
- Increased naturalism of an otherwise archetypal (thus idealised) story, so that it is more believable, more real and can be taken more seriously.
- The idea that God will manifest himself when he is ready, without regard for whether we human beings are ready or not.
- The Caganer reinforces the belief that the infant Jesus is God in human form, with all that being human implies.
- The character introduces a healthy amount of religious doubt to test one's faith.
- A humorous allusion to the Spanish proverb (in translation), "Dung is no saint, but where it falls it works miracles."
- "The caganer was the most mischievous and out-of-place character of the pessebre's [otherwise] idyllic landscape; he was the "Other", with everything that entails, and as the "Other", was accepted, in a liberal vein, as long as he did not aim to occupy the foreground. The caganer represented the spoilsport that we all have inside of us, and that's why it is not surprising that it was the most beloved figure among the children and, above all, the adolescents, who were already beginning to feel a bit like outsiders to the family celebration." Agustí Pons
- "The caganer is a hidden figure and yet is always sought out like the lost link between transcendence and contingency. Without the caganer, there would be no nativity scene but rather a liturgy, and there would be no real country but just the false landscape of a model." Joan Barril
- "The caganer seems to provide a counterpoint to so much ornamental hullabaloo, so much emotive treacle, so much contrived beauty." Josep Murgades
- "The caganer is, like so many other things that have undergone the filtering of a great many generations, a cult object; with the playful, aesthetic and superficial devotion that we feel towards all the silly things that fascinate us deep down." Jordi Soler
The practice is tolerated by the local Catholic church. Though the tradition is highly popular and beloved, there are, however, divided opinions among the local population as to whether it is really appropriate, which means that not all nativity scenes in Catalonia include caganers.
The Caganer is not the only defecating character in the Catalan Christmas tradition—another is the Tió de Nadal, which also makes extensive use of the image of faecal matter (it is a log, i.e. tió, with a face painted on it, which, having been "fed" for several weeks, is told to defecate on Christmas Eve and "magically" produces candy for children, a candy that has supposedly come from its bowels). Other mentions of faeces and defecation are common in Catalan folklore: indeed, a popular Catalan saying for use before a meal is "menja bé, caga fort i no tinguis por a la mort!" (Eat well, shit a good deal and don't be afraid of death!). In his book, Barcelona, architecture critic and locale historian Robert Hughes gives a good introduction to this earthy tradition.
The Caganer can also be found in other European cultures, either as an important or a minor local tradition:
- In France: Père la Colique ("Father Cholic"). In France this figure seems to date from the 1930s or 40s.
- In Murcia, the region just south of the Valencian Country in Spain (where they are called cagones)
- The Naples area, where it is known as cacone or pastore che caca
- Portugal, where they are known as cagões
Possible translations of the caganer concept into other languages include:
- In the Dutch / Flemish: Kakkers / Schijterkes ("Pooper"/"Little Pooper")
- In German: Choleramännchen or Hinterlader ("Little Cholera Man" or "Breech-loader")
Traditional vs. modern portrayals
The traditional caganer is portrayed as a Catalan peasant man (i.e. a farmer or shepherd) wearing a typical hat called a barretina — a red stocking hat with a black band. At least since the late 1970s, the figure of a traditional Catalan peasant woman was also added, wearing traditional garb including the long black hairnet.
The Catalans have modified this tradition a good deal since the 1940s. In addition to the traditional caganer design, you can easily find other characters assuming the Caganer position, such as nuns, devils, Santa Claus, celebrities, athletes, historical figures, politicians, Spanish royalty, British royalty, and other famous people past and present. Just days after his election as US president in 2008, a "pooper" of Barack Obama was made available.
At markets and exhibits
Caganers are easiest to find before Christmas in holiday markets, like the one in front of the Cathedral of Santa Eulalia, which has many tables of Caganers. Every year new figures are created, and some people collect them. Caganers are the focal point of at least one association (Els Amics del Caganer, i.e. Friends of the Caganer), which puts out a regular bulletin ("El Caganòfil") and have even been featured in art exhibits.
In recent years a urinating statue, or Pixaner, has also appeared, but it hasn't taken root or gained any serious popularity.
In 2005, the Barcelona city council provoked a public outcry by commissioning a nativity scene which did not include a Caganer. Many saw this as an attack on Catalan traditions. The local government countered these criticisms by claiming that the Caganer was not included because a recent by-law had made public defecation and urination illegal, meaning that the Caganer was now setting a bad example. Following a campaign against this decision called Salvem el caganer (Save the caganer), and widespread media criticism, the 2006 nativity restored the Caganer, who appeared on the northern side of the nativity near a dry riverbed.
Media related to Caganer at Wikimedia Commons
- Mooning - the act of displaying one's bare buttocks
- About El Caganer
- "A traditional Nativity scene, Catalan-style". BBC News. 23 December 2010. Retrieved 23 December 2010.
- Amics del Caganer (Friends of the Caganer). Consulted 23 December 2010.
- Garske, M. (December 23, 2010). "Weird Christmas Custom: Spot the Pooping Peasant". AOL News.
- El Caganer, by Jordi Arruga and Josep Mañà. (Barcelona: Alta Fulla, 1992), reproduced on the website Amics del Caganer (Friends of the Caganer). Consulted 23 December 2010.
- http://www.amicsdelcaganer.net/his6.htm Amics del Caganer
- Jordi Bilbeny, Les arrels precristianes del pessebre de Nadal (The Pre-Christian Roots of the Nativity Scene) (article in Catalan). Consulted 23 December 2010.
- The following opinions are translated from El Caganer, by Jordi Arruga and Josep Mañà. (Barcelona: Alta Fulla, 1992), reproduced on the website Amics del Caganer (Friends of the Caganer). Consulted 23 December 2010.
- Reference to this figure on the website: Centre de recherches Hubert de Phalèse - Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle - Paris III (in French). Accessed on 23 December 2010.
- Centre National de Ressources Textuelles et Léxicales
- Arruga, J. & Mañá, J. (1992). El Caganer. Alta Fulla.
- Whittaker, F. (October 11, 2012). "Christmas Traditions Around the World". MSN.
- Rose, Jeremy (2005-12-25). "Barcelona’s Christmas Crapper Canned". Scoop.
- Catalunya’s Christmas Caganer, from Roughguides.com by AnneLise Sorensen, December 1, 2005.
- "Caganers, Nation and Faith" at Oreneta.com About defecation and caganers.
- Section on the Caganer on the Festes website (Catalan)
- Amics del Caganer (Friends of the Caganer) (English) (Catalan) (Spanish) (German)