Arts, Culture & Media

A Catalonian Christmas tradition

The World's Gerry Hadden reports a Christmas tradition in the Catalonian region of Spain. It will strike you as unusual and might strike you as offensive. It is a figure in the Catalonian nativity scene called the �pooper.�

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Nativity scenes are in full display today as Christians prepare to celebrate Christmas. But visitors to Catalonia might be caught off guard the Spanish region's twist on the scene. Besides Jesus, Mary and Joseph there's an oddball in the creche: a squat little farmer in a red hat, pooping by the manger.

He's called the Caganer. Or, literally, the pooper. To non-Catalans the Caganer's appearance might seem like some crude joke, but around here Christmas wouldn't be the same without him.

A trip to City Hall tells the story. Here, thousands of people line up for a viewing of this year's official outdoor Nativity scene. The tourists admire the elaborate manger. But the Catalans in the crowd are trying to find the Caganer. Barcelona resident Montserrat Sacristan says Spotting the pooper is a fun yearly tradition, especially for kids. Parents, she says, hide the caganer in somewhere in the cr�che.

�There are people who put him right up front, so you can see. In my family he's always been more discrete, behind the stable for example.�

The origins of this odd figure are murky. Historians believe he first appeared on the scene in the 18th century. At Christmas time he is omnipresent, even today. And he represents many things: fertility, farming. But mostly the Caganer is a down to earth symbol for a down to earth people. Indeed, within Spain Catalans have a reputation for being no nonsense and industrious. They've been called the Northern Europeans of Southern Europe. And like some northern cultures, Catalan society has a reputation for being scatological.

The caganer isn't the only figure defecating over the holidays. He's joined by a pooping log, known as the �cagatio.� Every family with kids has one. One end of the log has a face painted on it. In the lead-up to Christmas a blanket is draped over the trunk. On Christmas Eve kids beat it with sticks and exhort it to defecate. When they lift away the blanket, they find treats hidden beneath � treats, their parents tell them, that the log has pooped out.

These unique holiday traditions have led one online blogger to dub the region Scat-alonia. That's just fine for Catalan Marc Pla. Pla literally depends on the Christmas poopers for his livelihood. At his Cagatio and Caganer workshop an hour north of Barcelona Pla is surrounded by tens of thousands of the painted clay figures.

�We have a saying in Catalonia,� he says. �The king poops, the Pope poops. Nobody can escape it.�

Not even the rich and famous, seems to be the message here. Besides the classic caganer, there's an Elvis version on one shelf. Boxes and boxes of President Obama await market. The Dalai Lama shares this intimate moment with John Lennon. And, who'd have guessed, there's Spiderman. Next to Spongebob Square Pants.

�Last year we missed out with Spongebob Square Pants,� says Pla. �We had Hello Kitty and the Smurfs but, well, you always forget some popular figure.�

For Catalans, being turned into a Caganer has become an ironic sort of honor. It says, �you've made it,� as it were. But there's clearly an element of teasing too.

At the bustling Christmas market by Barcelona's Cathedral, the Caganer.com stand is surrounded by shoppers. Schoolteacher Nuria Pe�as has bought a traditional Caganer to show to her pupils. And she's picked up Jose Mourinho too. Mourinho is the current coach of the Real Madrid soccer team. Fans of rival team Barcelona love to hate him.

�It's a gift for my father in law, Pe�as laughs, �who's a huge Barcelona fan.�

The Caganers haven't made much headway outside of Catalonia. Conservative Catholics protested their inclusion in an art show in Los Angeles some years ago. But here they're beloved. Back in 2004 Barcelona's City Hall tried to ban the Caganer from its outdoor Nativity Scene. Its argument: Defecating in public is illegal. Officials backed down under intense public pressure. The Caganer assumed his rightful position, hidden somewhere in the creche, waiting to be spotted.

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