Why do Catalonian nativity scenes feature a man pooping?

Some places have downright odd traditions and rituals.

As I wandered through some outdoor Christmas fairs in Barcelona, Spain, last weekend, I found many stalls specializing in crèches and figures for nativity scenes.

Fira de Nadal at the Barcelona Cathedral
This stall at the Christmas fair (fira de nadal) in front of the Barcelona Cathedral sells crèches. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

One figurine caught my eye because it seemed so bizarre: El Caganer. In polite translation, it means “the defecator” or one who poops.

He usually wears the traditional Catalonian red cap, a white peasant shirt and squats with his pants pulled down and a pile of excrement on the ground behind him. (See featured photo at top.)

El Caganer can be found in Christmas nativity scenes, but not in the manger. He’s usually tucked away somewhere, presenting his gift to baby Jesus, so to say.

Yes, the Catalonians are somewhat obsessed with crap. They’re not the only ones.

Scatalogical humor is part of our modern global culture, whether you like it or not. Over the last few years, it’s received a bit of a boost with the insane popularity of the poop emoji. Although the poop emoji appeared in 2010, it didn’t become one of the most popular iPhone emojis until 2016. Now, it can be found on earrings, hats, cupcakes, balloons and more.

poop emoji
The iPhone poop emoji (Apple)

The origins of El Caganer go much farther back than that of the poop emoji. In his book Barcelona, author Robert Hughes, traced the caganer as a folk-art character to the 16th century. The story goes that he became popular as a nativity figure in the 19th century.

The caganer also has appeared in more modern art, including by Catalonia’s own Joan Miró. He painted a baby squatting near his mother washing clothes at a cistern in “The Farm” in 1921 and the surrealist “Man and Woman in Front of a Pile of Excrement” in 1935.

The Farm by Joan Miró
Catalonian native son, artist Joan Miró, painted a baby (a caganer) squatting near his mother washing clothes at a cistern in “The Farm” in 1921. (Wikiart)

At the Christmas fair (fira de nadal) in front of the Barcelona Cathedral and the one in front of the Sagrada Familia, I saw rows of traditional caganers for sale. (These stalls sell many other figurines to basically create an entire village, complete with miniature animals, pots, jamón and looms.)

At tourist tchotchke shops, I also saw caganer figures in slightly larger versions on celebrities like Elvis to politicians like Russian President Vladimir Putin and even FC Barcelona soccer stars. (See photo at end.)

Why? I’m not exactly sure where this affinity for poop comes from, but it’s real.

Catalonians have “an abiding taste” for scatological humor and place the value a “good crap” on level with that of a “good meal,”Hughes writes. An old Catalonian folk saying goes “Menjar be, cagar fort, I no tingues por de la mort”or “Eat well, shit strongly, and you will have no fear of death.”

Cagier figurines
Many tourist tchotchke shops in Barcelona sell caganers modeled after celebrities, politicians, soccer stars and others. (Wikimedia Commons)

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