Last Christmas Eve was spent with our daughter and her family in the Methodist church in downtown Durham, North Carolina. Their boys, ages 15 and 12 at the time, were invited by classmates to join their respective youth groups at this church, and that was enough to move the whole family there. My Baptist son-in-law and Episcopalian daughter will worship in any church that has a great youth group, so there we were.
The Rector – or Pastor – of this church is a woman and so was her assistant. The pastor told the traditional Nativity story that all of us know, but with a little twist that brought it down to earth.
She told us that she had been traveling in Spain and wanted very much to find a beautiful nativity set to bring home. She went into a small shop and found just what she wanted: the manger, the Baby Jesus and his Mother, the shepherds, and also some local Catalonian figures like a woman hanging out her wash that made the scene even more charming. But then, hidden behind the manger was a small figure (shall I be polite?) “doing his business”. She checked the other sets, and there was always a likeness of this little peasant doing the same thing! Puzzled, she asked the proprietor who he was and why he was there. He is called the Caganer in Spanish, or the Pooping Peasant in English.
I’ll leave it to you to do the research on the history of this tradition. I’ll just tell you what it means to me, the non-theologian.
The Christmas service, or Midnight Mass as it is referred to by some, is one of the most beautiful services of the Christian year, and that is how it should be. By candlelight, with the music of angels, we praise God and all the heavenly hosts. Even at the earlier service we see the Holy Family with angels and wise men and shepherds, and little children see that Jesus too was a baby. And this is good.
I think it is also good to remember that Jesus was born in real time, blood and pain. Life was going on around him as usual. The Caganer was there behind the barn doing what he had to do.
Our Savior is so often remembered in mythic terms but He was and is real. If I’m ever in Spain I may buy a little Caganer for our nativity scene just to balance the heavenly choirs.