The Weirdest Christmas Custom of All

Almost everyone recognizes Waldo, the world traveler with the jaunty striped knit cap and sweater. Your job is to figure out “where’s Waldo” when he is “hidden in plain sight” in cartoon pictures of large crowds at places like the zoo or the beach.

Waldo has been around since 1987. But there’s another famous hidden-in-plain-sight character who has been around a lot longer—since at least the 1600s. He is not very well-known outside of his native country, Spain. But with the advent of the Internet, his reputation is spreading. He is called “The Caganer,” and for most of his history, he has looked something like this: a little peasant with a red cap.

Unlike Waldo, looking for him is not a year around “game.” In Spain, he spends most of the year in obscurity. For his time in the spotlight is only during the Christmas season. He is part of what surely must be the single weirdest “Christmas custom” in history.

One of the popular customs in the United States in the weeks leading up to Christmas is setting up a “manger scene” depicting the Baby Jesus and his family and visitors—small figurines in homes, large statuary in public places. Some churches even sponsor “live nativity scenes” in which people play the part of Mary and Joseph, the Wise Men, and the Shepherds. Sometimes even live animals such as donkeys and camels are included.

But in parts of northern Spain, particularly around Barcelona, you don’t just see just simple manger scenes, either in homes or public places.

In Catalonia [large section of northeast Spain], as well as in the rest of Spain and in most of Italy and Southern France, traditional Christmas decorations sometimes 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. In Catalonia, the pessebre or nativity scene is often a reproduction of a pastoral scene with a traditional Catalan masia (farmhouse) as a central setting with the child in a manger, with outlying scenes of a washerwoman by a river, a woman spinning, shepherds walking towards the manger area laden with gifts and herding their sheep, the three wise men approaching on horseback, an annunciation scene with the angel and shepherds, the star pointing the way, etc, all of this usually set on moss to represent grass, with cork used to represent mountains or cliffs.  [Wiki article]

Just as in America, individual families may have small versions of this in their home, while towns and cities may have a central outdoor series of dioramas of large—sometimes even almost full-size—people, animals, and props.

In Catalonia, as well as in some other parts of Spain, in Naples, and in Portugal, one of the highlights of the pessebre—particularly for children and teens—is “hunting for the caganer.” For somewhere in the elaborate scene he will be found, taking care of his business.

And just what is his “business”?

The name caganer, loosely translated into English, would be “the pooper”!

Yes, somewhere in every traditional pessebre is a statue of a person squatting down to “go to the bathroom.” You can tell that’s what he is doing, because below the “rear end” of the caganer statue is a little statue of poop.

He is never “within sight” of the manger itself. He is usually tucked quite far away, perhaps partially behind a bush or tree, but still in plain sight so that he can be spotted without disturbing the dioramas. This “Christmas custom” is so deeply entrenched in the culture of the people that the very thought of changing it makes them indignant. In 2005 the government of the city of Barcelona decided to NOT include a caganer in the city’s pessebre. The resulting outrage, uproar, and protest was so great that he was returned in 2006. The Barcelonan government folks had quite logically concluded that since public defecating was against the law, the presence of the caganer was setting a bad example. But you don’t mess with four hundred years of culture. They wisely decided to include him again, but put him in a section of the pessebre that was obviously intended to portray “the countryside.”

Back in the 1940s makers of caganer statues began “branching out” from the typical male peasant with the red cap. Branch out they have indeed! In recent decades you can get caganer figures that represent almost every class in society. No one is exempt from being caricatured.

Want to put a squatting Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in your pessebre scene? No problemo.

Want some younger royalty? Then this year’s happy couple, Prince William and his bride Kate, are available.

You can have American politicians.

The Dalai Lama and the Pope.

Even the Statue of Liberty isn’t exempt—with, of course, a green pile of poo.

You can have the sublime …

And the ridiculous.

What does this weird custom “mean”?? Nobody really knows. There are lots of guesses from sociologists and historians. Some suggest it started as some sort of religious rite related to ensuring “fertility of the soil” and prosperity of those erecting pessebres. Others suggest it was to insert a strong note of the “equality” of all mankind in the Christmas message. Maybe it just started as a medieval practical joke that got out of hand! But no one has ever been able to actually trace any “lineage” for the practice. It just “IS.” And, as the Barcelona government found out, you interfere with people’s beloved customs at your own risk.

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3 Responses to The Weirdest Christmas Custom of All

  1. Pingback: The Weirdest Christmas Custom of All | Currently StaRRing …

  2. Laurie says:

    This is priceless! Thank you for the laugh.

  3. Dave says:

    I heard about this on the radio the other day. Interesting, to say the least.

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