High River United Church of High River, Alberta

Do You Have This Figurine in Your Nativity - El Caganer!

The nativity set is a precious item in many of our homes.   It may be one that has been handed down and carries family significance. It might be one that we have purchased on a holiday or one that depicts just how we imagine the first Christmas. I have a large collection of nativity scenes that I enjoy unwrapping and setting out each Christmas. They come in every size, shape and colour. I appreciate seeing the Holy Family depicted in different clothing and skin tones, because it reminds me that they were not a white middle-class family, but rather a peasant family from the Middle East, a peasant family that represents families everywhere who welcome the Christ child.


When we travelled in Spain in 2019, I remember seeing an odd figure with some nativity scenes that were for sale, but I didn’t know what to make of it and didn’t think too much about it until I came across an article this week describing it. In various parts of Spain, especially Catalonia, as well as parts of Italy, France and Portugal, there is the tradition of including El Caganer, which means “the pooper.” Yes, you read that right, “the pooper.” It is a figurine caught with their pants down, pooping.


The tradition of including El Caganer goes back to at least the late 1600s. The figurine is tucked in a back out-of-the-way corner of the nativity scene, and sometimes a game is made of the children trying to find it. Traditionally, the pooping figurine was a male Catalan farmer or shepherd, but it has also taken the form of a Catalan peasant woman as well as celebrities, athletes, royalty, politicians, and other famous people.


Now, our first reaction might be of distaste, discomfort or even outrage. It may seem to us that such a figurine would defile the sacred scene of the nativity. Yet, in 2005, when the city of Barcelona omitted El Caganer in an outdoor nativity scene, a letter to the editor of a city newspaper declared, "A nativity scene without a caganer is not a nativity scene.”   How can this be?


While the inclusion of “a pooper” in a nativity scene might offend our sensibilities, just think about it for a moment.   There are several explanations for why El Caganer is included:


- it is a reminder that God came to earth, that the divine came live among the human beings who God had fashioned out of mud from the earth.


- it is a reminder that God chose to come into the muck and messiness of life by being born in a stable, a barn, rather than in a palace.


- it calls out the line from Mary’s song, which she sang in celebration of the news that she would bear God’s child. In this song, she sings, “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” El Caganer represents this bringing down of the mighty, especially when the character is royalty or a celebrity.


- it represents the “Other”, the one who is rejected, outcast, dismissed and unwanted in society. Jesus was always welcoming the ones who were outcast in society. El Caganer reminds us that God makes room for those rejected or distained by others.


- it is a counterpoint of down-to-earth reality tucked into beautiful, glorious, gilded nativity scenes. It evokes humility and earthiness when we get too carried away with excesses at Christmas.


- finally, it is fun. And having fun and being a bit silly is part of the life God has given us as well.


So, while we might not be rushing out to buy El Caganer (though if I make it some year in the future to a Christmas market in Spain, I’m going to be looking for one), I think this figurine is worth pondering this Christmas.


El Caganer reminds us that God was born into the muck and messiness of life. God came, not into a perfectly sanitized situation with everything highly organized, planned, prepared and controlled. God came into human life in a stable, when Mary and Joseph could find no room in the inn. God came into human life, right into the centre of the disrupted, disturbed, dysfunctional reality of human life to say, “I am with you; you are not alone.”


God is with us. God’s love is among us in this disrupted time. The divine presence has made a home in the midst of our grief, fears and worries. God is with us in this time of disconnection of relationship. God is with us; we are not alone. That is the gift we need this Christmas.


May you know God's peace and love enfolding you this Christmas,
Rev. Susan & Rev. David

High River United Church – a community of help, home & hope

 “Just to be is a blessing; just to live is holy.” A. Heschel







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