Catalan ceramic display offers irreverent Yuletide cheer

Posted On December 22, 2006

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In the north-eastern Spanish region of Catalonia the festive season is a time to show affectionate disrespect for famous personalities from home and abroad in the form of ceramic figures that cross garden gnomes with toilet humour.

Recent “star” statuettes, known as caganers and placed in nativity scenes, included King Juan Carlos as well as heir to the Spanish throne, Prince Felipe, and his beautiful wife, Princess Letizia.

But this year’s crop are generally politics-orientated, showing the likes of United States President George Bush, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero as well as Zapatero’s predecessor Jose Maria Aznar. Pope Benedict XVI has also made it into the selection, along with Barcelona’s two-time World Player of the Year, the Brazilian, Ronaldinho. The statuettes, however, are cast with their trousers down in the act of defecating.

The original caganer was a man wearing a red and black hat and peasant costume shown “going about his business”, a humorous way of placing a symbol of fertilisation and prosperity for the year ahead in the corner of a Nativity display. The tradition goes back to the 18th century, with well-known society figures, and more latterly, celebrities of one kind or another, cast in the starring roles.

“The caganer symbolises the need to prepare the land for the following year’s harvest,” said Jacques Deloncle, Museum curator at the medieval Castillet fort in Perpignan, France, “capital” of French Catalonia just a few kilometres north of its Spanish counterpart.

“But it also constitutes a form of irreverence which reminds us that all men are equal in life when it comes to biological functions,” said Deloncle, an ethnologist.

This Christmas, the Castillet will pay homage to the caganer tradition with an exhibition that allows youngsters to hunt down a few of these scatological models, carefully hidden at various spots around traditional Christmas Nativity scenes.

The caganer has been immensely popular for several years at Catalan Christmas markets on the Spanish side of the border, making regular appearances at the Santa Lucia and Sagrada Familia markets in Barcelona as well as Feria de l’Avet Christmas tree market at Espinelves and Sabadell.

The display artists behind the figures are Anna Maria Pla and her sons Marc and Sergi Alos from Estartit, near the Catalan city of Girona. They produce about 20 000 to 40 000 figures annually and sell them for between $11 and $16 apiece. Pla and her sons say the figures are “harbingers of positive values” and have given them a range of different faces, including that of a devil, a police officer and even a nun.

Then there are the celebrity versions, including most of the Spanish Royals, there is even a likeness of baby Princess Leonor this year. Queen Sofia is not there yet, however.

“Perhaps next year?” mused Sergi Alos.

Sales have even taken off outside Spain thanks to the internet, with interest notably from customers in the US and Britain. Catalan firms keep domestic sales healthy by ordering hundreds for friends and employees.

“The whole family is at it producing them all year round,” said Sergi.

Even those caricatured are ostensibly out buying them, such as Artur Mas, leader of the centre-right Catalan opposition Convergence and Unity party and pro-independence leader Josep Lluis Carod-Rovira, whose Republican Left is in regional coalition with local Socialists. Many a local plopped a caganerof Carod-Rovira into their Christmas shopping last year as his figurine proved a best-seller.

According to Sergi, the figurines help showcase popular Catalan art and are a response to what he called the lousy, poor quality products typically available on beaches in the region, most of them “made in China”.