Friday, December 22, 2006


Caganer, Mistletoe, and Sancho Panza

Associated Press (Dec. 20, 2006):
The Virgin Mary. The three kings. A few wayward sheep. These are the figures one expects to find in a traditional Christmas nativity scene. Not a smartly dressed peasant squatting behind a rock with his rear-end exposed.

Yet statuettes of "El Caganer," or the great defecator in the Catalan language, can be found in nativity scenes, and increasingly on the mantelpieces of collectors, throughout Spain's northeastern Catalonia region, where for centuries symbols of defecation have played an important role in Christmas festivities.

During the holiday season, pastry shops around Catalonia sell sweets shaped like feces, and on Christmas Eve Catalan children beat a hollow log, called the tio, packed with holiday gifts, singing a song that urges it to defecate presents out the other end.

These traditions, in the case of the caganer dating back as far as the 17th century, come from an agricultural society where defecation was associated with fertility and health.

While the traditional caganer is a red-capped peasant, more modern renditions have gained popularity in recent years.
The Catalan noun caganer comes from the verb cagar (defecate), itself from Latin cacare, a word discussed on this blog before. There is a good Wikipedia article on El Caganer, which mentions equivalent figures in other cultures (Kakkers or Schijterkes in Dutch, Père la Colique in French, Choleramännchen or Hinterlader in German).

I am curious about the word for the sweets shaped like feces, and also about the lyrics of the song sung by Catalan children as they beat the tió, which is apparently similar to the piñata. The Gran Diccionari del la llengua catalana derives tió from Latin tĭtĭo (half-burned log) and defines it thus:
Tronc gros que per Nadal hom fingeix que, a força de bastonades de les criatures, arriba a cagar dolços i altres regals.
On a related note, Anatoly Liberman (the Oxford Etymologist) discusses the scatological etymology of mistletoe:
The element -toe meant "twig" and originally ended in -n (Old Engl. misteltan), which was probably taken for a marker of the plural and therefore shed. Mistel- may be connected with the Germanic word for "dung" (Modern German Mist has retained that meaning; the relatedness of Engl. mist to its German homonym needs some elaboration). The mistletoe is said to be disseminated by birds; allegedly, they eat the berries and disperse the undigested seeds in their droppings. If mist in mistel indeed refers to the plant's life cycle, then -el is an obscure suffix. The Latin for mistletoe is viscum. From viscum we have the adjective viscous, and, since birdlime is made from the glutinous substance found in the berries of the mistletoe (or from the inner bark of the holly!), the Latin noun meant both "mistletoe" and "birdlime." Hence the cynical Latin proverb "the thrush defecates its own destruction" (turdus sibi malum cacat). According to another suggestion, mistel is an ignorant alteration of viscum, but the old etymology seems to be more trustworthy.
To return to El Caganer, the defecating peasant reminds me of a funny passage in Cervantes' Don Quixote (tr. John Ormsby):
Just then, whether it was the cold of the morning that was now approaching, or that he had eaten something laxative at supper, or that it was only natural (as is most likely), Sancho felt a desire to do what no one could do for him; but so great was the fear that had penetrated his heart, he dared not separate himself from his master by as much as the black of his nail; to escape doing what he wanted was, however, also impossible; so what he did for peace's sake was to remove his right hand, which held the back of the saddle, and with it to untie gently and silently the running string which alone held up his breeches, so that on loosening it they at once fell down round his feet like fetters; he then raised his shirt as well as he could and bared his hind quarters, no slim ones. But, this accomplished, which he fancied was all he had to do to get out of this terrible strait and embarrassment, another still greater difficulty presented itself, for it seemed to him impossible to relieve himself without making some noise, and he ground his teeth and squeezed his shoulders together, holding his breath as much as he could; but in spite of his precautions he was unlucky enough after all to make a little noise, very different from that which was causing him so much fear.

Don Quixote, hearing it, said, "What noise is that, Sancho?"

"I don't know, senor," said he; "it must be something new, for adventures and misadventures never begin with a trifle." Once more he tried his luck, and succeeded so well, that without any further noise or disturbance he found himself relieved of the burden that had given him so much discomfort. But as Don Quixote's sense of smell was as acute as his hearing, and as Sancho was so closely linked with him that the fumes rose almost in a straight line, it could not be but that some should reach his nose, and as soon as they did he came to its relief by compressing it between his fingers, saying in a rather snuffing tone, "Sancho, it strikes me thou art in great fear."

"I am," answered Sancho; "but how does your worship perceive it now more than ever?"

"Because just now thou smellest stronger than ever, and not of ambergris," answered Don Quixote.

"Very likely," said Sancho, "but that's not my fault, but your worship's, for leading me about at unseasonable hours and at such unwonted paces."

"Then go back three or four, my friend," said Don Quixote, all the time with his fingers to his nose; "and for the future pay more attention to thy person and to what thou owest to mine; for it is my great familiarity with thee that has bred this contempt."

"I'll bet," replied Sancho, "that your worship thinks I have done something I ought not with my person."

"It makes it worse to stir it, friend Sancho," returned Don Quixote.
For more on fright as a cause of defecation, see The Smell of Fear.

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