Several years ago, during my first Christmas in Andorrà, I spotted a curious sight in the Nativity scene outside an ancient Romanic church. Beneath the Star of Wonder, behind the manger that held baby Jesus, and just to the left of the Three Wise Men with their excellent camels, there was a guy in a little red hat, squatting and smiling and squeezing out a big curly shit.
This irritably-bowelled gentleman is known as “el caganer,” and he is the perfect embodiment of Christmas in our dumb, guaniferous age. As both an object and a symbol, el caganer is the most fascinating example of all the vulgarity, absurdity, and hope that the Best Time of the Year™ can offer us.
Fuck Santa. Fuck his elves. Fuck each and every one of his reindeer – if you want to understand what Christmas means today, you must understand el caganer.
But first, perhaps you need a bit of context. El caganer is a little figurine commonly used as a Christmas decoration in Catalunya, the region around Barcelona. The tradition dates back to at least the late 17th century, although nobody is quite sure of the exact date. Most families hide him in the pessebre (Nativity scene) for the children to find. His name means “the one who shits” or, literally, “the shitter.”
In his traditional form, el caganer is dressed in the homespun garb of a Catalan peasant, with a jaunty red barretina on his head and his trousers around his ankles, his naked ass hanging out for all the world to see. He is often grinning in a way best described as cheeky. He is such a ridiculous bumpkin that you can’t help but laugh when you see him. There’s just something funny about pooping in public.
Now, as it turns out, it’s even funnier when the person dropping the deuce is famous. These days when you walk through any Catalan Christmas market, you’ll find an endless variety of modern twists on el caganer. Here’s Donald Trump taking a dump. Over there, it’s football star Lionel Messi. Wait a second! Is that Shakira? Yes, dear reader, her shits don’t lie.
These celebrity caganers are a far cry from the rustic original. Most of them are ugly, overpriced Chinese-made tchotchkes that exemplify the worst tendencies of 21st century consumerism. Are they amusing? Sure. Are they worth 10 euros? Probably not. Will you be accosted by an irate merchant demanding blood or treasure if you dare to snap a photo as you walk past? Yes, if my personal experience is any indication.
It will not surprise you to learn that capitalism turns everything it touches into a commodity. Beloved holiday traditions are not exempt, even if it is generally understood that such a state of affairs sucks enormous amounts of ass. The only people who are happy about the commercialization of Christmas are the people who own the stores (their workers certainly are not). Yet despite the ill omens portended by the sudden proliferation of defecating Merkels, Macrons, and Obamas, let me suggest that they should also gladden your heart like a flagon of hot spiced wine.
One of the biggest lies of capitalism is that it is a creative force. The truth is, capitalism cannot create anything – it can only twist, inflame, pervert, distort. It needs raw material on which to feed. The oligarchs who commercialized Christmas didn’t succeed by convincing everyone, against their better judgment, that gifts were nice. They simply manipulated our innate human tendency to feel happy when we give and receive presents.
Thus, while the commodification of el caganer might seem like a depressing development, in reality it should make us feel hopeful and emboldened. It shows that there is a demand for the rich and powerful to be humbled. People are sick of watching the Mark Zuckerbergs and Elon Musks of the world smirk their way through fawning TV interviews and Very Serious Scoldings. We’re fed up with seeing them celebrated as demigods for being slightly smarter than the average grifter. We have come to realize that our emperors have no clothes, and their rectums are just as full of shit as their press releases. When we see the figurine of Jeff Bezos hovering above a fresh-laid turdbaby, we understand on an intuitive level that, despite his endless billions, he is no better than the workers he exploits with such callous inhumanity. Absurdity is a wondrous equalizer. Peter Thiel can fritter away his fortune in a vain attempt to live forever, but one day he will die just like the rest of us. When he does, the smell from his voided bowels will be as foul as his politics.
As beautifully cathartic as such a thought may be, I shouldn’t overstate the symbolic power of el caganer. If you despise Bibi Netanyahu (and you should), it’s probably more effective to fight him by donating to human rights organizations like B’Tselem than by displaying his sans-pants likeness on your mantelpiece. Yet at the same time, we shouldn’t discount the power of symbols.
The pessebre, or Nativity scene, is a perfect example of how an absurd symbol can change the world. It’s easy to forget how insane the story of Christmas sounds to a person who’s never heard it before. Here’s a migrant couple, surrounded by flea-ridden farm animals, giving birth to the savior of mankind (despite never having sex) in front of a couple of strangers who walked hundreds of miles, following a star on a weird hunch that this random baby would grow up to rescue the entire fucking human race from eternal damnation. Wouldn’t a guy trying to quietly take a dump be the most normal part of such a scene?
By his mere presence, el caganer helps us remember the Real Meaning of Christmas. He reminds us to have faith that the weak can triumph over the mighty, to share little moments of joy with each other, to embrace what seems to be ludicrous. It’s no coincidence that such a symbol would come from Catalunya, the land of Dalí and Gaudí, the homeland of the greatest experiment in human freedom the world has ever seen (and perhaps its most robust scatological tradition as well).
As the old Catalan saying goes, “menja bé, caga fort i no tinguis por a la mort.”
Eat well, shit strongly, and don’t be afraid of death. Bon Nadal!