As crappy holiday traditions go, the Catalonians may have the rest of the world beat. That's because this northeastern outpost of Spain has some decidedly bathroom-laden Christmas customs that leave many unsuspecting visitors scratching their heads, laughing or both. Without further ado, we present you el caganer, a statue of a person pooping, off in a corner of a traditional Nativity scene.
This is not some recent cultural development that signals the downfall of modern society. Rather, it's a tradition that dates back at least two centuries.
In Catalan, a Romance language from the region of Catalonia, Spain, the word caganer translates roughly to "crapper," although some sources use rougher language. The most popular caganer features a male peasant in a red hat, crouched with his buttocks exposed, and an unmistakable little brown pile at his feet.
At Christmastime, the caganer is sneakily hidden somewhere within a Nativity scene. Children make a game of trying to spot the pooping figurine as he crouches in the shadows. The caganer is never at the front of the scene because that would be disrespectful.
No one really knows what gave rise to this long-lived tradition. Because fecal matter has been used as fertilizer for agriculture throughout history, some say the statues are a fertility symbol of sorts. By plopping a pooper in the midst of the scene, perhaps farmers will gain favor with higher powers, find favorable conditions for crops, and ultimately wind up with greater yields at harvest time.
But there are a couple of other theories in play.
Because the Christian faith states that Jesus literally became human in order to save people from their sins, perhaps the pooping statue is a reminder of humanity's common bonds. Furthermore, maybe the caganer purposely portrays a rather undignified private moment in conjunction with a Nativity scene to reinforce our shared vulnerability in the presence of a higher power.
No one really knows. But one thing's for sure — caganers are big business.
The caganer's turn toward fame came in 2003, when demand for Catalonian-made statues was dropping and cheap Chinese imports were cutting into the market. The company El Caganer took note that it was an election year and made caganers with politicians' likenesses on them.
Rather than take offense, those politicians gamely embraced the silly mockery, and consumers loved it. The irreverent caganers became a huge hit, and now the company sells tens of thousands of the items every year.
Since then, the artists who make these figurines have been turning famous people, like politicians and celebrities, into pooping figurines. Each year, they monitor news headlines and pop culture, introducing new faces that they think will sell well. That includes Donald Trump, Shakespeare, Spock, Tiger Woods, Boris Johnson, George Michael, the pope, Madonna and a whole lot more.
Then, the workers carve a likeness from plaster and construct a mold. From that mold come hundreds or even thousands of clay reproductions, poop and all. The little figures are painted by artists, which sometimes include disabled people in the local community.
The lesson? At Christmastime in Catalonia, poop smells, but it also sells.