One of my favourite cities in the world is Barcelona and it is a wonderful city to visit at Christmas. There is something unique and irreverent in the Catalan character that shines forth at Christmas with all the brilliance of a Christmas star. A couple of years ago we rented a flat just across the road from the Sagrada Família, directly overlooking the Fira de Nadal a la Sagrada Família, the basilica’s Christmas market. That pre-christmas visit to Barcelona was one of our best trips ever, we have such fond memories of this wonderful city, the food, the wine, the architecture and the people. Barcelona might be suffering from over tourism but we never felt anything but welcome. I fell in love with the city, its culture and its people. ( I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to travel, I cannot in good conscience travel so casually now, the carbon implications are just too much, but that is a whole other post).
Despite my lack of faith, I have always had a great fondness for the Christmas story and the nativity and no one does the nativity quite like Barcelona, they bring their own unique irreverence to the scene. In addition to the official nativity in Plaça Sant Jaume, there are nativity scenes all over the city and while many people might have a nativity scene featuring the baby in the barn, these guys go all out and create whole worldscapes featuring the environment and socio-political landscape of the time, they have to be seen to be fully appreciated. The whole town of Bethlehem is not uncommon complete with surrounding farms, but I have also seen the entire region replicated in these wonderful displays.
There is one figure in these scenes that is unique to Catalan culture; the caganer. Now I could be polite but lets just be honest, the word translates as; “the crapper”, the caganer is the figure of a shitting peasant in a traditional Catalan red cap, pants down doing what comes naturally. Tradition dictates that the caganer must be secreted somewhere amongst the nativity display, to do otherwise is to invite bad luck. It is not intended to be obvious and right next to the baby in the manger but somewhere subtle within the display. The lack of pretense the caganer represents really appeals to my bolshie nature and the caganer became the symbol of Barcelona for me. It perfectly summed up, the down to earth, unpretentious nature of Barcelona. The caganer comes in the traditional peasant form or you take your pick of the great and the good represented as a caganer. When we were last in Barcelona you could get Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, even a Queen Elizabeth or the pope as a caganer. (Somehow the portrayal of Donald Trump or for that matter Boris Johnson as a caganer seems to have less impact, they are already figures seeming to lack dignity). The point is of course that the figure is meant to remind us of our shared humanity. Beneath all the pomp and pretense we are all human with the same earthy human bodily functions and that is a great equalizer.
The other association of the defecating figure is with fertility, the act of fertilizing the earth is seen as something to be valued, a celebration of earthy values, of caring for the earth. Perhaps it dates back to something earlier and more pagan than the Christian mythology and that is why it appeals so much to me. The caganer is not the only defecating figure of Catalan Christmas tradition, there is also Tió de Nadal, the Christmas log, who tradition dictates must be cared for up until Christmas eve, given food and placed under a blanket to be kept warm, then on Christmas eve or day, the log is either placed partially in a fire or hit with sticks and urged to “shit” at which point it defecates lollies or small toys for the children. The blanket I guess is the means by which parents can hid the small items until the moment of reward. A uniquely Catalan version of the yule log.
Walking around markets in Barcelona, like Fira de Nadal a la Sagrada Família or Fira de Santa Llúcia, you will see dozens of stalls selling caganers, both the traditional and the modern celebrity caganer. You will also see Tio de nadal and a huge range of figures for the nativity not just the traditional, holy family, wise men and shepherds but all sorts of figures like a washer woman or roman soldiers, whatever you can think off the Catalans will find a way to add it to a nativity scene and they create these beautiful, sometimes complex dioramas. On our trip that year I bought a caganer and then we decided we loved the nativity scenes so much we would start to create our own and to that end we bought the most beautiful wise men figures to begin our new nativity. Our nativity is simple but one day we might build it up to emulate the beautiful nativity displays of Barcelona. Our caganer is a treasured souvenir of a place and a people we felt an affinity with and a reminder that what is important is not pretense but earthy realities.