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Why do Catalan Christmas traditions involve poo?

From seasonal figurines answering nature’s call to wooden logs excreting presents, faeces are an integral part of Christmas in Catalonia. But… why?

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05 December 2019 07:35 PM

by

Neil Stokes & Cillian Shields | Barcelona

In a global, hyper-connected world Christmas these days is familiar just about everywhere: Santa and reindeers, snow and Christmas trees, gifts and candles - we all know the routine, especially the part that leaves us with a crippled bank account.

Yet, each culture also retains its own distinctive customs and traditions that coincide with end-of-year celebrations, which sometimes can even pre-date the birth of Christ, and in that respect Catalonia is no different than any other place around the world.

Where Catalonia's Christmas traditions stand out from the others, is that a few of them seem like they were taken straight out of an episode of Blackadder, or were possibly made up during a brainstorming session by the Monty Python comedy team. 

Look no further than the 'caganer', the figurine of a peasant in the traditional red Catalan hat known as the 'barretina', with his trousers around his ankles and mooning while he relieves himself of yesterday's dinner - presumably roast turkey with all the trimmings.

A 'crapper' in the stable

While the idea of the Christmas 'crapper' is weird enough in itself, where it gets really bizarre is that the traditional place for the caganer is in the nativity scene, alongside the newborn Messiah, his holy parents, and an adoring cast of shepherds and wise men.

“It’s not a provocation, it’s normal in Catalonia to have the caganer in the nativity scene,” explains Dani Cortijo, a historian who specialises in Barcelona and Catalonia.

However, “from the perspective of people not from Catalonia, you can see that it’s not normal,” he adds.

No one knows who had the brilliant idea of putting a defecating peasant among the characters called on to witness the Son of God's entry into the world, but one can only imagine that it was someone with severe mental problems.

“You can be very religious in Catalonia but if you don’t put the caganer in the nativity scene, you cannot have good luck for the next year,” warns the historian. 

“It starts maybe as a joke, but it's also a symbol of fertilization,” Cortijo highlights. Healthy excrement added to the soil leads to healthier crops growing there after. It’s an idea that comes from “pagan” times, Cortijo points out, from the days when the land was much more closely linked with the daily lives of all humans. 

The theme of fertilization also lends itself to a game that parents and children play in the weeks leading up to Christmas. The caganer figurine is moved around to different spots in the house, and the children must find it. The theory is that by the caganer defecating in different spots, the whole of the land gets well fertilized, rather than just one area.

The tradition of putting a caganer in the nativity scene was seen as far back as the Baroque period, in the 17th and 18th centuries, but academic institutions in Catalonia theorize that many elements of the figure comes from pre-Roman Iberian culture.

Celebrities with their trousers down

Leaving aside the debate on how public money is spent on cultural research, the meaning of the caganer has spawned many theories, including the idea that he is a fertility symbol, that he represents "the other", that he provides light relief, or that he pokes fun at authority.

Whatever 17th-century people meant by placing a caganer in nativity scenes, today the caganer has definitely become a figure aimed at bringing the high and mighty down a peg, as modern caganers are often portrayals of well-known celebrities and authority figures.

Every year, the cast of caganer characters changes according to who has been most in the media spotlight, which meant that in 2019 among the most popular celebrity crappers on sale where the likes of Rosalía, Boris Johnson and Greta Thunberg. 

The caganer is not alone

The popularity of the caganer is reflected in their widespread availability at Christmas markets in Catalonia, such as Barcelona's Santa Llucía fair held outside the city's cathedral, which does a roaring trade in caganers, with many people now collecting them.

In fact, caganers even have their own association, Els Amics del Caganer (Friends of the Caganer), which points out that the Christmas crapper is not exclusive to Catalonia, with versions also to be found in Valencia, Murcia, Portugal, and Naples in southern Italy.

While people from most other cultures might find the Christmas celebration of poop in Catalonia strange - to say the least - the Catalans are proud of it, and even double down on the festive feces symbolism with another traditional figure, the 'Tió de Nadal'.

Say hello to the "poop" log

While children in other places are content with hanging up a Christmas stocking and hoping for the best, kids in Catalonia go further, by looking after their 'tió' - a log propped up on sticks, with a painted face, wearing a barretina hat, and covered with a blanket.

In the run-up to Christmas, Catalan children keep the log warm and "feed" it in order to fatten it up so that on Christmas Day or Eve, the 'tió' will - you guessed it - defecate, while they beat it with sticks and sing a traditional ditty imploring the log to dump various goodies

The 'Caga tió' ("poop log"), as it is more commonly known, only drops what children from other places would consider stocking-fillers, as the big gifts are brought on the eve of January 6 by the Wise Men, or Three Kings, who mercifully keep their trousers up.

Like the caganer, the festive trunk of wood also has roots in pagan times, a symbol of “the changing of the weather,” as Dani Cortijo explains. 

The tió was “the first log you get in the woods” and it would be brought into the house, a celebration of the warmth that mother nature brings when the log was placed in the fire. 

As far as the pooping tradition from the wooden log goes, Cortijo assures “it’s normal in Catalonia.” 

“But it’s also a joke because we feel very proud to have these things and say it’s normal for us,” he says, laughing.

Feces in folklore

Apart from perhaps, "where can I get a Rosalía caganer?", the question that springs to mind is how this interest in excrement, especially at Christmas, became a central part of Catalan folklore, as the language also has a great many sayings invoking feces. 

The absence of any mention of poop in the Christmas story suggests the tradition might be from a time before the angel Gabriel had even thought about paying Mary a visit, backing up experts’ theory that the origins of such customs are indeed pre-Christian.

Whether the Catalan fascination with feces harks back to a time of rituals to ensure the earth's fertility (caganer) or arcane rites to communicate with the ancestors (tió), it could well be a subject best left to the scatalogists (academics who study poop).

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  • A caganer figurine of former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont (by Xavier Pi)

  • A caganer figurine of former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont (by Xavier Pi)

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