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The Catalan Christmas Crapper - an excerpt from Barcelona

While attending Mass one day in Barcelona in 1959, Luís de Galinsoga, the pro-Franco director of the city’s leading newspaper, La Vanguadria, couldn’t stand it any longer. He stood up in church and shouted: ‘¡Todos los catalanes sono un mierda!’ (‘All Calatans are shit!’) Enough protests were lodged, and enough people boycotted the paper, for Franco to personally sack him. Barcelonans didn’t have much to laugh about that year, but Galisoga’s fate must have provoked a few smiles. The Catalans probably weren’t even as miffed as they let on. Just as Brussels has 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, only to become scatalogical streams of consciousness. The caganer, or Christmas crapper, a figurine with a bare buttocks suspended over a lovingly carved pyramid of poo, has been an essential figure in any Barcelonan Christmas crib since the 1500’s, placed just downwind from the main event in the manger. Not even Christmas-crib mad Italy has anything like a caganer; in Neapolitan presepi you’ll see pizza ovens, plates of spaghetti, sausages, Roman ruins, elephants, camels and Turks, but nary a crapper. Catalunya 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 traditional 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. All wear beatific smiles.

The value of a good crap is brought home to young Catalans in another tradition, the Tió, or ‘Uncle’ Christmas log, which the children beat with sticks, shouting ‘Caga, Tió, caga!’ (Shit, uncle, shit!) until Tió duly 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 Catalan euphemism in honour of the detested Bourbon conqueror of their homeland, Philip V. After all, as cookery writer Josep Canil de Bosch wrote in La Cunya Catalana (1907): ‘Regular body functions make nations strong. Strong nations lead the pack, and eventually become masters of the world.’

© Dana Facaros & Michael Pauls