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Caganer — the strangest, most scatological part of Catalan nativity scenes — explained

There are the traditional figurines in any nativity display you might see this holiday season: Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, the shepherds, angels and the wise men bearing gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Then, there's one figurine you might be a little less familiar with: the guy with his pants around his ankles, presenting a decidedly different, and far less fragrant, type of offering. That's a caganer, and in some parts of the world, it's a staple of the nativity display.

Allow us to explain.

1) What is a caganer?

The word "caganer" literally means "the shitter" in Catalan, a Romance language spoken in Catalonia. And it refers to a nativity scene figurine in the act of defecation.

2) How did that ever become a thing?

Scholars aren't exactly sure when or how the tradition came to be, though there does seem to be a consensus that its roots extend to 18th-century Catalonia — the Northeast area of Spain comprising Barcelona, Girona, Lleida, and Tarragona.

Though excrement is gross, for peasants and farmers it's actually important since it serves as fertilizer. Some think the caganer was originally a portent of good harvest and fortune to come, a type of fertility symbol. "There was the legend that if a countryside man did not put a caganer in the nativity scene, he would have a very bad year collecting vegetables," Joan Liiteras, a caganer connoisseur, told the BBC. In the words of an old Spanish proverb, "Dung is no saint, but where it falls it works miracles."

There might also be theological reasons for the nativity addition. According to Maureen Tilley, professor of Christianity at Fordham University, the caganer is significant because it's a reminder of the early Christian belief in the Incarnation: that in order to redeem humanity, God had to be fully embodied (incarnated) in human flesh. And what's a more unifying human trait than "Everybody Poops"?

3) What does it look like?

The traditional caganer figurine is a peasant in a red hat, squatting, with his pants pulled down to expose his butt. There is usually some poo included. Here's a picture.

Caganer original

(Natursports/Shutterstock)

4) Do all of them look like that?

No. Over the years, caganers have  many famous people have been depicted as caganers. Like President Obama.

Obama caganer

(Lluis Gene/AFP/Getty)

And Madonna.

Madonna caganer

(Lluis Gene/AFP/Getty)

And Gollum.

gollum caganer

(Lluis Gene/AFP/Getty)

And Mario.

Mario caganer

(Lluis Gene/AFP/Getty)

And Pope Francis.

Pope Francis caganer

(Lluis Gene/AFP/Getty)

5) Wait. You're mocking the Pope — and MADONNA?!

It's possible that seeing a religious or political leader in the act of defecation might offend some. But a better way to see it would be as a type of homage paid to a prominent figure. After all, not everyone gets a caganer made of them. You have to have achieved a certain amount of clout. According to caganer.com, which sells hundreds of the figurines, many celebrities see it as an "honor" to have their own caganers made.

And remember, though toilet humor offends our modern sensibilities, earlier cultures were much more comfortable with the subject, as blogger Local Lisa notes:

... it's safe to say that the Catalan response to the first caganer was largely a positive one. After all, Catalans are notoriously scatalogical and in those days human waste, like that of all animals, was just another nontoxic fertilizer. ... Today most Catalans are all about preserving this quirky tradition which honestly reflects that part of their agrarian past.

6) Where are caganers popular?

In Catalonia, and other Catalan-influenced cultures, like Andorra and Valencia, all in Spain. The Association of Friends of the Caganer claims to have found the figurine in other parts of Spain, Portugal, and Naples. In Catalan cultures, caganers are hidden throughout nativity scenes, and children are encouraged to hunt for them.

That there now exist caganers that depict American celebrities might signal that the tradition is gaining traction in the states, similar to how other international Christmas traditions (like Krampus) are becoming more popular here.

7) Isn't this kind of sacrilegious?

At first blush, the caganer might seem sacrilegious. But think about it: what's irreverent about the act of shitting, which is an inescapable and necessary part of life for human and animals?

The Association of Friends of the Caganer says the figure "adds a human side to the representation of the mystery of Christmas." Without this "human side," in fact, there might not even be a Christmas story in the first place.

Christianity teaches that in the birth of Jesus, God became fully human — which, of course, means he would've defecated regularly. Granted, most Christmas songs don't talk about Jesus in such terms. According to legend, popularized in Christmas songs like Away in a Manger, the meek Baby Jesus isn't even supposed to have cried … let alone pooped. (Of course, he would've done both, as any newborn's parents will tell you.)

Richard Beck, theology professor and blogger at Experimental Theology, discusses how the "sanitizing impulse" of many modern Christians has influenced how stories of Jesus' birth are imagined.

Most Nativity depictions hide the body. The barn scene is idyllic and clean. But we all know that the body was there in the Nativity. There was blood, amniotic fluid, and an umbilical cord. There was no running water or clean towels. Bloodied rags are heaped nearby. The barn smells of urine and manure.

Including a caganer in a nativity scene, he says, is one way Christians can remind themselves of the full humanity of Jesus.

Tilley thinks there's another reason to include one in a crèche. Unlike modern nativity scenes, traditional Meditteranean ones "contain figures of all occupations and states of life, shepherds, weavers, kings, children, soldiers, and mothers with infants," she says. The caganer, then, is just one more figurine in one more state of life. And though it might appear irreverent, she says, it reminds the viewer that "there is no part of life, anybody's life, that is outside the love and care of God."

Correction: Catalan is a Romance language spoken in Catalonia. It is not a dialect of Spanish.