When I was little, it was my Christmastime job to arrange my family’s nativity scene on a shelf for all to see. I would ponder how the birth of Christ must have gone down, where the wise men had stood to get the best view, and whether camels and sheep got along. The one thing I didn’t think about was someone needing to take a dump. That was mistake number one.
It was my first holiday season living in Seville, Spain. And there, the nativity, called the Belén (or Bethlehem), is the cornerstone of the holiday decorations, depicting the entire city of Jesus’ birth. So while I missed the snowmen, Christmas trees, and Macy’s storefronts of my Chicago home, I was glad that I would still be able to set up a nativity scene in my temporary one.
In the Plaza de San Francisco, a huge square in the city’s cobblestone center was the annual nativity festival. I had never seen the plaza so full-full of white tents, of artisans, of families.
There, it’s also the kids’ jobs to assemble the nativity. Each winter the kids pick out new figurines to add to their scenes. On tiptoe, they peer over the edges of the makeshift booths, thrusting their little fingers at the characters and set-dressings they want in their Belén that year. Some buy miniature pig legs, rabbits, and morcilla (blood sausage). Others buy miniature gardens, loaves of bread, and tables. Observing the tradition amid the throngs of shoppers, it looked to me as if the children were preparing tiny, ceramic feasts for their tiny, ceramic Jesuses.
Finally, I reached the edge of the plywood booth and surveyed the miniature rivers, mountains, stables, and farmers that stretched for at least 15 feet on either side of me. And that’s when I saw him: a boy, bent over, pooping. He was holding the sides of his jeans around his knees.
I furrowed my brow, blinked a few times, and moved on from the rogue pooper. But soon I realized he was not alone. He and his minions were everywhere. They came in all shapes, sizes, and styles. Some were small, simple cartoonish; others were large, ornate, and lifelike. But all assumed the ill-famed position-a Hershey’s Kiss-shaped plop of poo under their exposed hind ends. Some were exhibitionists, and others bashful, hiding their deed behind a haystack.
I decided to purchase my Belén from an artisan with a collection of fun, juvenile-looking figurines. They were small enough to fit into my suitcase without worsening my already abysmal luggage fees (I don’t travel light).
After dwelling on the mischievous pooper for several days, I finally summoned the courage to ask my brash host mother why the little guy was defecating in front of the Christian savior.
“So, I went to the nativity fair the other day and saw figurines of boys and men pooping…” I hesitated. “Well, we have nativity scenes in the United States, but I have never seen that figurine before,” attempting to ease into the inquisition. “Who is he?”
“Just a guy,” she responded, not getting my point. “He could have been a shepherd, a stable boy, or anyone else.”
“Well, what is he doing pooping?”
Cocking her head to the side, she let out a little chuckle, reminding me that I, the stupid American, had emerged once more. “Well lots of things happened at the birth of Jesus,” she began. “The three wise men came with gifts, the shepherd tended his flock, and probably someone had to poop. We call him the caganer.”
I stared at her, waiting for further explanation. There wasn’t any. So I turned to my pocket Oxford University Press dictionary. Shitter. Caganer means shitter.
The following winter, in my family’s Indiana home, the Plaza de San Francisco and my host mother’s frankness were distant memories. It was a week before Christmas, and Frosty, the Douglas-Firs, and Silent Night felt like the holidays. And as always, I assembled the nativity scene. My family’s reaction was a mixture of shock, disgust, and crude delight.
But now, to my family, the caganer is a staple of the Christmas season. He’s a reminder that Christ was-and is-here with the angels, with the wise men, and with all of us, even in the biggest of dumps.