A new nativity scene: Jesus, Mary, and a Pile of Poo

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.

K. Aleisha Fetters is a Seed.com contributor.

Christmas in Spain

¡Feliz Navidad!

Spaniards are big into Christmas. The eating, the gift giving, the shopping craziness, it’s all here with a distinctly Spanish twist.

Hold off on the presents

The day for gift giving isn’t Christmas, but Epiphany on January 6. Christmas Eve isn’t a time for anticipating what’s under the tree but for sitting with the family chowing down heaps of good food while ignoring the king’s annual speech on television. Epiphany is the chance for another Big Feed. Spaniards don’t really need an excuse to have a giant dinner with all the family!
Shopping continues right into early January. After Epiphany there are Las Rebajas (“The Sales”) when stores try to get rid of their excess stock. Spaniards wanting to save money can give a notice that they’re going to buy someone something, and then buy it when the big sales come. This year many shops have started Las Rebajas early because of La Crisis. I’ll let you translate that one for yourself.

Los Reyes Magos, not Santa

Santa is known here, of course, and you see lots of inflatable Santas hanging from people’s windows, but he takes second place to the The Three Kings or Wise Men. Gaspar, Melchor, and Baltasar showed up on Epiphany to give gifts to the baby Jesus. Every year they fly into Madrid and other cities to much pomp and ceremony and go on a big parade through town.
Baltasar, the African king, is the kid’s favorite. You see him and his buddies hanging out in department stores taking requests from excited children, and kids send lists of toys to them like American kids do with Santa. Baltasar used to be played by Spaniards in blackface, something that doesn’t have the cultural baggage here that it does in the United States, although I still haven’t gotten used to seeing it! Luckily the influx of African immigrants in the past few years has provided a ready supply of real Africans to play the favorite Wise Man.
On the night of January 5 people put one of their shoes in the living room for the kings to place presents next to. It’s also nice to leave out some milk and cookies for the Kings’ camels. They have to walk all around Spain in one night and they get hungry.

%Gallery-80910%Bethlehem, not Christmas trees

Because the Wise Men are so popular there’s a long tradition of making dioramas showing them coming to see the infant Jesus in Bethlehem, Belén in Spanish. They’re called Belénes and can get quite elaborate, with entire towns containing hundreds of figures. Check out the gallery for some examples. Many private homes have a Belén and shops often put them in their windows. A pharmacy near my apartment has the best in my barrio. It fills the entire front window and takes a couple of days to set up.
Christmas trees, originally a German tradition, have never been big here. Considering the size of most Spanish apartments you couldn’t have a very impressive tree anyway! Besides, if you had a big tree there would be no room for a Belén.
Check out the gallery for some fine examples of Spanish Belénes and others from around the world, featured in an exhibition by Caja Duero on until January 10 in Madrid.

El Gordo

There’s also the big national Christmas lottery called “El Gordo”. The grand prize always runs into the millions of euros and there are lots of smaller prizes to tempt people who don’t understand statistics into playing again and again. There are so many winning numbers that the drawing takes most of the day. The numbers are sung out by schoolchildren on TV and radio and their high-pitched sing-song recitation of the numbers is one of the sounds of Christmas here.

So what about Spanish New Year? One distinct custom is that as the clock starts striking twelve you have to eat a dozen grapes before it finishes. That’s harder than you think. Other than that people hit the town, drink a lot, and make out with people they probably shouldn’t. Some traditions are universal.