When my heathen family immigrated to the United States with neither religion nor an appetite for the gift-giving, the weirdest thing to get acquainted with was Christmas. The origin is confusing enough: An infant god, whose daddy is also kind of himself, was miraculously born through a virgin birth. To celebrate this baby lord’s birthday, people in the United States tell children that an old man will break into their homes to deposit gifts or carbon fuel — but it is crucial to ignore him while he commits this backwards robbery. Americans decorate his point of entry with large socks. The gifts go below an outdoor tree that’s now an indoors tree. We sing songs — but during Christmas, songs are called carols. Why? Well, reasons!
But all of that pales in comparison to Catalonia’s Christmas poopers.
This is no Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo, a recent invention by modern man. Catalonia’s caganer — elegantly translated as “the shitter” — is a figurine that’s hidden in pessebre nativity scenes in Spain that’s existed since the 18th century. In some ways, the caganer is like a festive Where’s Waldo: He wears a red cap, and children are tasked with finding it in crowds. But the most obviously distinguishable aspect of the caganer from other childhood characters is also the thing that makes it most special, and that is that it is pooping.
But is the caganer as popular in Spain as Santa is in the United States? As Jesus? For insight, I reached out to Daniel Parcerisas, the president of the NY-based organization Catalan Institute of America. “The caganer is very very prevalent in Spain. Everybody likes it,” Daniel tells me. “For most kids it’s their preferred figure in the nativity scene, which is saying a lot when Jesus is right there next to him, you know?” After seeing the caganer in action, reader, I did know.
Even solemn nativities in Spain will include caganers. “It’s not mocking religion — it’s really an integral component of Christmas,” explains Daniel. “People like to hide the guy somewhere, like behind a tree — you know, because he’s taking a shit.” (Having camped outside once before, I told Daniel that I did know.) “Right. He wouldn’t do it right in the open. That allows for a bit of a game where kids try to find him. People like to put together these nativity scenes with lots of different figurines so it’s not just Jesus and Joseph and the Virgin Mary. There’ll be villagers and townspeople and farmers. And so somewhere dispersed in this live scene about what life must have been like 2000 years ago, there’s a guy, uh, shitting somewhere.”
Statistically speaking, with a nativity that comprehensive, it’d make sense that one among the many would be heeding nature’s call. And don’t just take Daniel’s word for it. Consider last year’s nativity in Barcelona, the largest ever constructed in Spain. Over the length of two football fields, this pessebre made the news for its accuracy in recreating the mountainous town of Montserrat in the 1940s. Local news outlet Catalan News praised the feat for its attention to detail on such a large scale, and giving prime placement to “the traditional characters such as the shepherds, the three kings, the baby Jesus, and, of course, el caganer.”
Of course!! El caganer!!!!!
But modern traditions aside, where did this begin? Why is it so prevalent in Spain? What’s normalized — nay, mandated the inclusion of a man busting a grumpy into a sacred scene? Again, I turned to Daniel.
“Why you would put a figurine of a guy into a nativity that’s taking a — you know, a dump? I have no idea to be perfectly honest with you. The only story that I’ve heard people say is that it has to do with fertility in a ‘may the land be fertile for the coming year’ way. Honestly, I don’t know if I believe it. I think people are just trying to find a meaning. I just know that it’s been done forever, and people have fun doing it.”
After further extensive research online, I’ve found that some have posited that the doodie is an agent of the grotesque that serves to amplify the sacred and divine. Some have said that it’s representative of Catalonians’ nature to bring authority figures down to Earth; nontraditional cageners are made to look like modern celebrities, which means that you can own a pooping Shinzo Abe, Kate Middleton, or even a SpongeBob Squarepants. (Before you take offense, getting turned into a caganer is neither a sign of respect nor ridicule, because Catalonians have a much more sophisticated relationship with their national idols than we do, obviously.)
Personally, I agree with Daniel, and appreciate his honesty. It’s popular because it’s funny. It’s funny because poop.
Part Two: The Second #2
I am so delighted to inform you that the caganer is not the only pooping Christmas character for Catalonians. It’s not even the most popular. There is also the Tío de Nadal or caga tío, a wooden log painted with what looks like the psychotic face of a Muppet after a few CBD lattes. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, children are told to take care of the log by keeping it fed and warm, so that it produces good poops.
I ask Daniel to, again, explain: “It’s magical. Every family and household does it slightly different. But in my household, we put this log out the week before Christmas and they quote-on-quote feed it. Every now and then we’ll put an orange next to its mouth — because it’s got that face on it, right — and leave it there. Of course, when the kids aren’t looking, we’ll take the food away — and it’s like ‘Oh it ate the orange.’ And then it has to shit it all out, and that happens on Christmas Day.”
He continues: “Parents will hide the presents in the blanket that covers the back end of the log. They’ll stuff the presents under there and kids will hit it with these sticks. Every now and again they’ll send the kids to another room to stir the sticks in some water for some reason — I’m not sure what that’s about. Basically that’s an opportunity to stuff more presents. Then the kids will come back, they’ll sing the song again, and hit it some more. You do that as many times as you need to to get all the presents out.”
For non-Spanish speakers, the most excellent part of this entire custom is that “cagar” is more closely translated as “to shit” than “to poop.” (Again, here’s Daniel: “Yeah it’s definitely weird and I think that everyone realizes that it’s kind of weird that it’s a harsher word, but that’s the way it goes.”) Imagine a roomful of children singing in their lovely dulcet tones “shiiit, log, shiiiiiit” and try and tell me that you’re not newly filled with hope. Actually — you don’t have to imagine. There are dozens of examples on YouTube.
To fully appreciate this scene, it’s useful to actually understand the the song (carol???). It translates loosely as:
Hazelnuts, and mató cheese.
If you don’t shit well,
I’ll hit you with a stick.
My last question for patient Daniel was whether all this poop has an effect on children later in life. I know that I cannot see a portly older man with a white beard and not think “SANTA, HI!” What Pavlovian impulses do Catalonian children have because of the caganer and caga tío? “I will say that Spain in general has a very scatalogical sense of humor. If you watch a lot of Spanish comedy, people will always crack a joke that has to do with poop or pee. It’s kind of childish I guess? So maybe that’s something that persists into adulthood and the origin might be the caga tío and caganer? That might be a stretch actually.”
Between the caganer and caga tío, that is a big helping of joy to digest, process, and then pass through us (possibly back and forth forever). So this holiday season, be you Christian or secular, American or not, take a moment to stop and appreciate the small, rich traditions that teach us how to share, how to be grateful, and how to appreciate life. Especially if it’s all because of a little holy shit.