El Caganer, the Mischievous Rogue in Spain’s Nativity Scenes

WARNING – Anyone of a sensitive disposition should stop reading now.

“There’s a man having a crap beneath that tree!”

Unsubtle as that statement might seem, there was no other way to put it. Actually there were quite a few other ways to put it but none served the purpose of wrapping it up in more palatable terms.

There was a man squatting in broad daylight beneath a tree.

These things happen of course. But in this case the man wasn’t in some rural idyll where porcelain and discreet cubicles were lacking. This was in the centre of a shopping centre and, worse, not far from where the baby Jesus was being gently rocked in his crib. Apart from being exhibitionist, it seemed to border on the blasphemous.

Can You Spot El Caganer, Belén, Spain

In a lovingly and beautifully crafted belén (Spanish nativity scene), the man squatting beneath a tree seemed an incongruous addition to happy scenes of village life. Somebody had put him there as a joke… surely.

But a couple of days later, at a different belén, I noticed another man caught short outside, then another and another. Soon it became an obsessive quest to find him. Sometimes it took a while but he was always there – tucked discreetly behind a wall or under a bush. In one case he was actually inside an outside loo whose door indiscreetly swung open every so often to reveal him mid… well, you get the picture.

He is El Caganer (I won’t bother with the translation as it’s a case of ‘say what you see’), an essential and very popular part of just about every belén all across Spain.

The Origins of El Caganer
Why he’s there is a bit of a mystery and the subject of much debate. It looks as though his roots lie with the Catalans and he’s thought to have first appeared in the late 17th century. It’s claimed that he’s a figure of good luck, his ‘deposits’ fertilise the soil which in turn results in a good yield. Subsequently his presence promises good luck and happiness. Leave him out and you’re asking for trouble.

But he’s also seen as a mischievous wink at the Catholic Church; a nod that seems to say ‘don’t take yourself so seriously’.

El Caganer, Belén, Spain

Whatever his purpose, he’s a popular fellow and the first to sell out when nativity figures go on sale in supermarkets in the run up to Christmas. Searching for him in belenes might be a schoolboy-ish activity, but it’s good fun.

The popularity of El Caganer is such that there are websites selling figures in all guises. The Catalan peasant is the traditional one but you can also pick up FC Barcelona and Real Madrid footballers, Spanish politicians, The Queen, Mick Jagger and Bruce Springsteen, Sarah Palin, Shakira, Star Wars stormtroopers and the Pink Panther (whose poops are also pink apparently).

Recent aristocratic additions for 2012 are William and Kate. There are no boundaries when it comes to good taste and sensitivity.

You can even buy chocolate models of El Caganer but in my book that’s just wrong.

Next time you stumble across a belén, make sure to keep an eye out for El Caganer… and then tell me you don’t get the slightest buzz out of spotting him fertilising the plants.




2 Comments

  1. Your stories of his ‘meaning’ ring true, but the one I like is that his is the essentially human ‘business’ that goes on, no matter what miracles may be occurring just out of his sight. The Caganer – a reminder of our own humanity.

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