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A traditional Nativity scene, Catalan-style
December 23, 2010 7:03 AM   Subscribe

Mary, Joseph and the shepherds are all gathered around the baby Jesus in his manger, as loudspeakers emit the occasional animal sound for extra, rustic effect. But this is Catalonia, and no crib is complete without one additional figure. He is known in Catalan as the caganer.
posted by empath (42 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
Really fascinating, empath! I especially like the list of possible underlying factors motivating its inclusion. Interesting to speculate about.
posted by Miko at 7:08 AM on December 23, 2010


From the last link: "this is probably an a posteriori explanation."

Sounds about right, then.
posted by Buckley at 7:09 AM on December 23, 2010 [10 favorites]


The page also leads me to another Catalan tradition: the Tió de Nadal, or Christmas Log.

The form of the tió de Nadal found in many Catalan homes during the holiday season is a hollow log of about thirty centimetres length. Recently, the tió has come to stand up on two or four little stick legs with a broad smiling face painted on the higher of the two ends, enhanced by a little red sock hat (a miniature of the traditional Catalan barretina) and often a three-dimensional nose. Those accessories have been added only in recent times, altering the more traditional and rough natural appearance of a dead piece of wood.

Beginning with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 8), one gives the tió a little bit to "eat" every night and usually covers him with a little blanket so that he will not be cold at night.

On Christmas day or, depending on the particular household, on Christmas Eve, one puts the tió partly into the fireplace and orders it to "poop" (the fire part of this tradition is no longer as widespread as it once was, since many modern homes do not have a fireplace). To make him "poop", one beats him with sticks, while singing various songs of Tió de Nadal.

posted by EarBucket at 7:16 AM on December 23, 2010 [5 favorites]


I really just posted this for the tags.
posted by empath at 7:24 AM on December 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well, duh. Where do you think Mr. Hankey comes from?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 7:28 AM on December 23, 2010 [2 favorites]


Needs a christmaspoo tag.
posted by EarBucket at 7:32 AM on December 23, 2010


It's been mentioned on MeFi a couple times before.
posted by gaspode at 7:32 AM on December 23, 2010


The Caganer reinforces that the infant Jesus is God in human form, with all that being human implies.

Well, they do always talk about it being a "lowly" cattle shed. Those gold, frankincense, and spotlessly clean robes and animals don't give a very good impression of lowlyness to me. But a guy copping a squat, this my friends screams lowly!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 7:52 AM on December 23, 2010


It's been mentioned on MeFi a couple times before.
posted by gaspode


It's like Mefi's dusty box of xmas decorations brought down from the attic once a year. Only, scatalogical.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 7:55 AM on December 23, 2010 [6 favorites]


Putting caganer into Google Images gets great results. Omg there's a Woody Allen, an Obama, a Darth Vader, the Pope, the Queen. Kitschly hilarious. I didn't know the vulgar bare assed pooper had such folk roots.
posted by nickyskye at 7:56 AM on December 23, 2010 [3 favorites]


Those gold, frankincense, and spotlessly clean robes and animals don't give a very good impression of lowlyness to me.

I didn't learn until I was an adult that the gifts of the Wise Men in the lore of the Nativity are all symbolic - not just generic treasures. They are supposed to prefigure Jesus' life and his roles as a king, a regular man, and a divine being - the gold signifies kingship, the frankincense connotes religious ceremonies in which objects bathed in a cloud of incense smoke were cleansed and became holy, and the myrrh was a substance used both as a healing balm and as an embalming ointment for the dead.
posted by Miko at 8:05 AM on December 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


I didn't learn until I was an adult that the gifts of the Wise Men in the lore of the Nativity are all symbolic - not just generic treasures. They are supposed to prefigure Jesus' life and his roles as a king, a regular man, and a divine being - the gold signifies kingship, the frankincense connotes religious ceremonies in which objects bathed in a cloud of incense smoke were cleansed and became holy, and the myrrh was a substance used both as a healing balm and as an embalming ointment for the dead.

The seldom-sung verses of We Three Kings are pretty much the only place I've heard anyone bother to explain the gifts, and I had a similar "Whoa" moment when I first listened to a version that included them.

Ever since, I've been on a campaign to get people to sing the verses, but I'm probably an outlier in my enjoyment of religious symbolism.
posted by Copronymus at 8:17 AM on December 23, 2010 [4 favorites]


This is one of those little object lessons that teach us that no matter how weird we imagine actual aliens to be, our fellow humans are still weirder than that - meaning no matter how hard we try, we're never going to be able to imagine actual aliens.
posted by Michael Roberts at 8:25 AM on December 23, 2010


Three Beings, One God.
posted by munchingzombie at 8:28 AM on December 23, 2010


So this is why I found (and then promptly purchased) a tiny marzipan figure of a little boy squatting and pooping out a gold plastic coin that was lodged in between his butt cheeks. I was doing some Christmas shopping at a local imported-foods store. It seemed to be from a German-speaking country, so far as I can tell, but it has to be a related custom.
posted by Countess Elena at 8:30 AM on December 23, 2010


Is this thematically related to the 16th and 17th century habit of (if I'm remembering correctly) painting pissing dogs into church scenes? Something about reminding people that they can't completely divorce themselves from the mundane and earthy, even when trying to be holy?

Ever since, I've been on a campaign to get people to sing the verses

I love those verses too, especially the myrrh one -- it always gives me the chills.
posted by frobozz at 8:39 AM on December 23, 2010


Since we're talking about those verses, here they are:

Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain
Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
Over us all to reign.

Frankincense to offer have I;
Incense owns a Deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, voices raising,
Worshipping God on high.

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.

posted by Miko at 8:42 AM on December 23, 2010 [2 favorites]


EarBucket, you left out the funniest part of the Tió de Nadal article:

The Caganer is not the only defecating character in the Catalan Christmas tradition...

Well of course, what kind of lame Christmas tradition would only have one defecating chararcter?
posted by marxchivist at 8:45 AM on December 23, 2010 [9 favorites]


If you guys are digging the Wise Men stuff, it's worth noting that they were tied into Herrod's murder of every new born male child in Bethlehem.

Also interesting (to me): they were Magi, which is to say Persian and a form of Zoroastrian. It is only after contact with the Zoroastrians that the ancient Hebrew holy books first record the idea of a conflict between Good and Evil, of a duality of creation, or any idea of different destinations for the dead. They don't record any of it this way, but texts pre-dating their introduction to Ahura Mazda are clearly different from those written after they left Persia, and it is interesting to see the Zoroastrians, who wound up playing such a pivotal roll in Judaism, come back to play another such roll in Christianity. Which, of course, if even *more* concerned with duality and eternal punishments or rewards.
posted by paisley henosis at 8:45 AM on December 23, 2010 [5 favorites]


Hm, Countess Elena, the pooping marzipan seems to be a German moneymaker figure. Here's one for sale. I haven't found anything explaining it any further, though.

16th and 17th century habit of (if I'm remembering correctly) painting pissing dogs into church scenes? Something about reminding people that they can't completely divorce themselves from the mundane and earthy, even when trying to be holy?

That's the one that resonates most with me, but maybe only because we're working on an exhibit of 17th century Dutch paintings. There are a lot of gritty/earthy/deathly details in the paintings which are supposed to do that, emphasize the distinction between the filth and nastiness of a fallen earth and the perfection and purity of heaven. But I waver after reading the articles, because some cultures simply are more scatological than others, and there could be a simple humor element.

I'm not sure I really buy the 'fertility' argument, since human waste isn't usually the best fertilizer available in a place where you have things like sheep and cows already, and I was under the impression it wasn't that widely used across Europe. But who knows.
posted by Miko at 8:50 AM on December 23, 2010


I'll see your Caganer, and raise you one Swarte Piet
posted by humboldt32 at 9:29 AM on December 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


Other mentions of feces and defecation are common in Catalan folklore: indeed, one popular Catalan phrase before eating says "menja bé, caga fort i no tinguis por a la mort!" (Eat well, shit strong and don't be afraid of death!).

heh
posted by Think_Long at 9:32 AM on December 23, 2010


"But, look. You didn't have to wash out that manger."
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:34 AM on December 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oh, common. Who isn't already familiar with the one person at any holiday get together who's at least taking a metaphorical dump in the corner? In my family that was usually grandma Helen. "Lotion? Why would you get me lotion? Do I look too wrinkled to you. What the hell kind of gift is lotion?" Yeah, there's always a Caganer where ever humans congregate.
posted by Toekneesan at 9:54 AM on December 23, 2010 [5 favorites]


Thanks for reminding me about the verses of We Three Kings, Copronymus. I was trying to explain the symbolism of the gifts to a 6 year-old yesterday, and that hymn would probably help. I got in a bit over my head with the "why did people know he was going to die" question. Mumbled about prophets and then had some difficulty explaining what they were.
posted by paduasoy at 11:11 AM on December 23, 2010


you just saved christmas for me.
posted by toodleydoodley at 11:32 AM on December 23, 2010


I got in a bit over my head with the "why did people know he was going to die" question

Ah, these waters swiftly become very deep.
posted by Miko at 11:36 AM on December 23, 2010


Previous "We Three Kings" stuff. I like this version.
posted by marxchivist at 12:43 PM on December 23, 2010


paduasoy: Thanks for reminding me about the verses of We Three Kings, Copronymus. I was trying to explain the symbolism of the gifts to a 6 year-old yesterday, and that hymn would probably help. I got in a bit over my head with the "why did people know he was going to die" question. Mumbled about prophets and then had some difficulty explaining what they were

Looking at this story as a historical event which actually could have happened: the wise men knew he would die because all children who are born shall die. Nothing really shocking there. Also, as Magi, in spite of how it is frequently translated, they were not there to worship him as god, or as a demi-god, or any other such thing. They came from an empire which had been ruled for generations by divine right kings, chosen and blessed by the[ir] one true god. So from their point of view, the infant in the manger was not destined to be King of Heaven, which would be blasphemy, but certainly was blessed by Ahura Mazda to be the King of the Jews, so they paid their homage to him and betrayed Harod's mission so as not to go against the clear will of their own god.

Now, reading the whole thing from a Christian point of view, the question of why Jesus the Christ had to die, or for that matter if Jesus the Christ did need to die, that is a sticky wicket.

but an infant in a manger receiving myrrh is basically just the first of many memento mori-s in Christianity.
posted by paisley henosis at 3:21 PM on December 23, 2010


paisley henosis, someone else suggested the "they knew he would die because everyone dies" thing to me today - but I don't think that would work as an answer to this 6 year-old as she would reply, not unreasonably, that they weren't giving myrrh to all children. Any further suggestions welcome - I can see the conversation with her running for a while (though I may try to derail by showing her the caganer).
posted by paduasoy at 3:38 PM on December 23, 2010


Any further suggestions welcome

Can't you just make up any bullshit you want? It's not like the story has any logical consistency anyway, being completely fabricated and all.
posted by empath at 3:57 PM on December 23, 2010


Slightly more usefully: just tell her that the Magi were experts in astrology and could read his fate in the stars. It's an easy enough answer for a 6 year old to understand, and ties in well to the whole 'new star in the east' thing.
posted by empath at 4:01 PM on December 23, 2010


Thanks - I'll give the star thing a go. As for making up stuff, because I think it is all bullshit, I tend to go overboard in trying to represent as accurately as I can what I think Christians think about this - putting in loads of caveats about what different groups think etc. I do tell her of course that I think it's all crap - she disagrees. And may be about to change schools to a Catholic one, oh joy.
posted by paduasoy at 4:08 PM on December 23, 2010


I went to Catholic school. There's no better way to raise an atheist, imo.
posted by empath at 4:11 PM on December 23, 2010


Good to know. Guess the process can be hard on everyone involved sometimes though. Anyway, sorry for derailing, and Yay for poohing.
posted by paduasoy at 4:39 PM on December 23, 2010


paduasoy: someone else suggested the "they knew he would die because everyone dies" thing to me today - but I don't think that would work as an answer to this 6 year-old as she would reply, not unreasonably, that they weren't giving myrrh to all children.

They probably didn't, but it isn't at all unreasonable to think that they may have given myrrh to all new born future kings. The Magi were, historically, in a constant power struggle with the ruling dynasties of Persia. The time of Zoroaster himself was a very low point of their power, but by the time of the nativity he had been dead for at least a thousand years, and the Magi were an active political force.

I don't happen to know, FYI, that myrrh was in fact a normal gift to new born heirs of Persia, but it isn't unreasonable.

As for why Jesus the Christ had to die (which is really a separate question from "why did the Magi give the baby myrrh?") the most common answer is "for the forgiveness of sins;" in this explanation all sin stems from Adam and Eve deliberately choosing to disobey god's direct command in the Garden of Eden and eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of good and Evil. This first sin, they say, begat all other sins in a kind of fruit-and-death Pandora's box. The first time that god tried to wipe this stain of sin of the world, he reunited the waters above with the waters below and flooded the entire planet for 40 days and nights. Then he founded a special Covenant with his chosen people though his servant Abraham (and later Moses and the other patriarchs). He gave them his Law (Heb. "Torah") and set them forth to be an example to all the peoples of the world, and through them bring his will and justice to all people. That, apparently, failed and a *new* covenant was needed. Where the old covenant was nearly sealed with Abraham's son's life and wound up being sealed with his foreskin, this new covenant was sealed with god's own son's life. That life was offered up as a sacrifice, like a lamb on an altar, and that sacrifice was so worth that it had the power to erase *all* sin going all the way back to Adam and Eve. So Jesus the Christ *had* to die in order that his holy blood could wipe away æons of sin. In this vein, while he was dead he traveled down and cast open the very gates of Hell, freeing all of the great people of history who were unable to reach heaven because they were tainted by original sin.

Another explanation for why Jesus the Christ had to die is because he was a man. Heracles was a demi-god who didn't need to die because he was more than human, but Jesus the Christ was (at the same time that he was divine) a mortal human being, and as such condemned to die from the time he drew his first breath.

My personal, history-based explanation for why Jesus the Christ had to die is that many hero-gods died and rose from the dead, so Jesus the Christ did too. Christianity is basically a veneer of messianic Judaism cut with Zoroastrian duology and wrapped around a chimera of hero-gods. The birth to a virgin and physical resurrection after death were both fairly common among hero-gods of the time and Judea was a crossroads between Persia, Egypt and Roman Greece, all of which were lousy with hero-gods doing things like feeding huge groups of people with tiny amounts of food and whatnot. Placing the birth of the child on the winter solstice is another good example.
posted by paisley henosis at 4:43 PM on December 23, 2010 [2 favorites]


Nice use of the "yulelog" tag. Very classy.
posted by ostranenie at 4:51 PM on December 23, 2010 [2 favorites]


The caganer resembles the Amanita Muscaria mushroom. Red cap, white stalk, and "dirty bottom", from the earth that the mushroom stipe has on it when pulled out of the ground.
posted by telstar at 4:52 PM on December 23, 2010


Whoops, forgot the link to the photo.
posted by telstar at 4:55 PM on December 23, 2010


When I was in Barcelona, the upscale hole-in-the-wall gastro-pub we went to had thoughtfully published its menu in two languages for the benefit of tourists... Spanish, and Catalan.

When "they" say everyone in Europe understands english, "they" fucking lie - what happens is that the locals are much more used to not understanding the foreigner pattering at them than someone from North America.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:51 PM on December 23, 2010


‎"Not at all. It was the only thing the little shepherd boy had to give the Baby Jesus. So it's not at all disrespectful, it's a great gift."

ROTFLMAO! :P
posted by Mokusatsu at 3:17 AM on December 24, 2010


It's kind of interesting to note that for a tradition as specific as creating a mini manger scene, there are a lot of regional and individual variations. Here's a great story about a town in Italy where they carve famous people and local characters for the town Nativity scene. In my own family, we have a tradition of adding various representatives to the scene along with the "wise guys," such as Star Wars figures, a Playmobil Wiccan priestess (yes they make one), figurines that look like family dogs past, etc. Such a display sort of begs for a unique community spin.
posted by Miko at 7:02 AM on December 24, 2010


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