Who is el caganer? If you’re not familiar with this Christmas character, he’s a peasant usually added to nativity scenes in Spain. He’s typically dressed in traditional clothing like robes. But, unlike Mary, Joseph, or the Three Wise Men, he’s, well…always depicted squatting, with his pants around his ankles and having just left a large turd on the ground. (El Caganer translates to a slang term that means, in more indelicate language, “the guy who poops.”)
The character reportedly dates back to the 18th century, and the Catalonia region of Spain. There are many theories as to why people back then (or now) wanted a guy defecating near the manger. Some historians say that grandiose nativity scenes were losing the humanity or humility of the meaning of the Christmas, and so someone created el caganer, the most bluntly “human” character imaginable.
But there’s an even more disgusting theory. Since el caganer is a poor peasant with nothing to offer the baby Jesus, like the Three Wise Men, he gives him the only thing he can. A third theory suggests that the character is linked to old pagan traditions. The cagner isn’t just going potty, he’s fertilizing crops.
If you’ve guessed that el caganer has caused controversy over the years, you’re correct. Everybody from priests to community leaders have tried to get rid of him. The Franco regime even attempted to have him banned at one point, fearing that el cagner was a destructive symbol of Catalan nationalism. City officials in Barcelona tried to do the same in 2005 because they were worried that he encouraged public defecation. Despite their efforts, five years later, one of the city’s shopping malls proudly featured the “World’s Largest Caganer.” It was 19 feet tall and landed in Guinness World Records.
Despite all that, the lil’ stinker remains hugely popular all across Spain. He’s typically hidden or placed on the edges of nativity scenes and kids love to see if they can spot him. The cagner also doesn’t come dressed as just a peasant these days. There are novelty versions made to look like Bruce Springsteen, Barack Obama, Mick Jagger, and Queen Elizabeth.
But this isn’t the only poopy Christmas tradition in Spain. Many homes also set out a Tio de Nadal, literally “Christmas log.” These hollow logs, topped with a red hat, are placed near fireplaces on Dec. 8th. In the days leading up to Christmas, kids “feed” their Tio candy and keep it warm by wrapping it in a blanket. On Christmas Day, kids hit the log with sticks while singing special Tio de Nadal songs. It’s then that the log then “poops” out small presents like chocolate and candy that the kids’ parents have carefully hidden in the log or beneath the blanket.