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A traditional Catalan caganer from the front.

A traditional Catalan caganer from the front.
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A traditional Catalan caganer from the back.

A Caganer (Catalan pronunciation: [kəɣəˈne]) is a small statue found in Catalonia, in neighbouring areas with Catalan culture such as Andorra, and in other parts of Spain, Portugal and Italy. The figure is depicted in the act of defecation. Caganer is Catalan for "shitter".

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The traditional Caganer

In Catalonia, as well as in Spain and in most of Italy and Southern France, traditional Christmas decorations 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. The caganer is a particular feature of modern Catalan nativity scenes, and is also found in other parts of Spain and southwestern Europe, including Salamanca[1], Murcia (cagones), Naples (cacone or pastore che caca) and Portugal (cagões)[2]. 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.

Possible reasons for placing a man who is in the act of excreting waste in a scene which is widely considered holy include:

  • Tradition.
  • Perceived humor.
  • Finding the Caganer is a fun game, especially for children.
  • The Caganer, by creating feces, is fertilizing the Earth. However, this is probably an a posteriori explanation, and few cite this reason for including the Caganer in the Nativity scene.
  • 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, taken literally and 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 that the infant Jesus is God in human form, with all that being human implies.

The exact origin of the Caganer is lost, but the tradition has existed since the 17th century. An Iberian votive deposit was found near Tornabous in the Urgell depicting a holy Iberian warrior defecating on his falcata. This started 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 that 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.

Originally, the Caganer was portrayed as a Catalan peasant wearing a traditional hat called a barretina — a red stocking hat with a black band.

The practice is tolerated by the local Catholic church. Caganers are easiest to find before Christmas in holiday markets, like the one in front of the Cathedral of Santa Eulalia, which has tables and tables of caganers. Caganers have even been featured in art exhibits.

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 human waste production. Other mentions of feces and defecation are common in Catalan folklore, indeed, one popular Catalan phrase before eating says "menja bé, caga fort i no tinguis por a la mort!" (Eat well, shit strong and don't be afraid of death!).

The Caganer can also be found in other European cultures:

  • In Dutch / Flemish : Kakkers / Schijterkes ("Pooper"/"Little Pooper")
  • In French : Père la Colique ("Father Colic")
  • In German : Choleramännchen or Hinterlader ("Little Cholera Man" or "Breech-loader")

The Caganer in the modern day

The Catalans have modified this tradition somewhat 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, 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 [3].

In recent years a urinating statue, or Pixaner, has been added to the tradition.

Sanitization

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.[4] 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.

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