This little squatting man, with his pants around his ankles and a plop of ceramic poop under his bare keister, has become, at least to me, a symbol of the true meaning of Christmas.
Of course, when I first saw him at Sevilla’s annual nativity festival in the Plaza de San Francisco, a huge square in the Spanish city’s cobblestone center, I was pretty much just flabbergasted. “Why on earth is a tiny ceramic man taking a crap in front of the tiny ceramic baby Jesus,” I thought. Sure, the miniature pig legs, rabbits, and morcilla that the Spanish kids were buying to add to their elaborate Beléns were cute and folksy, but a guy taking a poop?
“Well lots of things happened at the birth of Jesus,” said my señora, with whom I was living at the time. “The three wise men came with gifts, the shepherd tended his flock, and probably someone had to poop.”
The lady had a point.
It’s believed that the caganer made his first appearance in the Spanish nativity scene, or Belén, during the late 17th or early 18th century, as the naturalism movement flourished in Europe and sought to humanize largely archetypal or idealized stories (think: the birth of Jesus) to be more believable and relatable. Like the book says, Everybody Poops. The caganer is a reminder of everyone’s humanity, which the Bible says God took on by coming to earth as a baby. And, man, do babies poop a lot.
By mid December, the caganer (aka shitter) was everywhere: His tushy shown in plazas, homes, schools, and even churches. I know because I looked. And in Spanish nativities, which are known for including 30+ figurines, it sometimes takes a good deal of searching. Think of it as the bare-bummed version of Where’s Waldo.
And as if the shitter weren’t hilarious enough on his own, shop windows also became home to figurines of celebrities including Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, and Bruce Springsteen assuming the caganer position. My favorite: The Sarah Palin shitter. And while he wasn’t as prevalent as the shitter (for obvious reasons), another figurine apparently needed to take a leek during the birth of Jesus. His fly was open, a pink little piece of clay stuck out, and a string of fishing wire ran out of it and onto the ground in a huge, hilarious arch. While I bought them for all of my friends, their exposed willies weren’t exactly child friendly. Still, the point was the same.
So now, every holiday season, when I set out my nativity, the caganer is there. Some years he’s behind the stable, some years he’s on the outskirts of town, and other years he’s front and center. But every year he’s a reminder that Christmas is about Jesus coming to earth to be with all of us—even in the stinkiest of shits.