Catalans drive the rest of the Spaniards crazy. While attending Mass one day in Barcelona in 1959, Luís de Galinsoga, the pro-Franco director of the city’s leading newspaper, La Vanguardia, couldn’t stand it any longer. He stood up in church and memorably shouted: ‘¡Todos los catalanes sono un mierda!’ (All Catalans are shit!) Enough protests were raised, and enough people boycotted the paper, for Franco to sack the newspaperman personally. Barcelonans didn’t have much to laugh about that year, but Galinsoga’s fate must have evoked at least a few smiles.
They probably weren’t even as miffed as they let on. Just as Brussels is renowned for its Mannekin-Pis, Barcelona has a jolly fixation with Number Two. It may be because the medieval city grew up between two torrents, the Cagallel and the Merdança, ‘turd taker’ and ‘shit stream’. Both were buried centuries ago, under the Ramblas and the Rec Comtal, only to become scatological streams of consciousness.
The caganer, or Christmas crapper, a figurine with bare buttocks suspended over a lovingly carved pyramid of poo, has been an essential figure in any Barcelona Christmas crib since the 1500s, placed just downwind from the main event in the manger. Not even Christmas-crib-mad Italy has anything like a caganer: pizzerias, plates of spaghetti, elephants, camels and Turks, yes; crappers, no. Catalonia squats alone. Ethno-psychoanalysts wonder: is the caganer the fertility symbol of an obsessive anal-retentive race? An expression of down-to-earth reality – the Messiah may have come, but the duodenum pushes on? The embodiment of Catalan opposition to central authority, even divine authority?
Most caganers wear traditional costume, with a floppy red Catalan cap, but there are variations for collectors – Sherlock Holmes, policemen, movie stars and even nuns; currently the most popular is the Barack Obama version. All wear beatific smiles.
The value of a good crap is brought home to the young in another tradition, the Tió, or ‘Uncle’, Christmas log, which the children beat with sticks, shouting, ‘Caga, Tió, caga!’ (Shit, Uncle, shit!) until Tió excretes sweets. On Epiphany, the Three Kings bring naughty children sugar-coated turds made of dried figs. Catalan nationalism used to be recalled each time a schoolchild went to the ‘Felipe’, a universal euphemism in honour of the detested Bourbon conqueror Philip V. After all, as cookbook writer Josep Canill de Bosch wrote in La Cuyna Catalana (1907): ‘Regular body functions make nations strong. Strong nations lead the pack, and eventually become masters of the world.’
You can start your own collection in the gift shops of the Barrí Gotic, or order one from caganer.com. These are well made and hand painted; new faces include Pope Francis, Putin, Madonna and Messi.
Images by: Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls, Emi Yañez