By Sr. Pia Ignatius
Not too long ago we visited Mariapolis Luminosa in Hyde Park, NY. At Christmas time, Luminosa traditionally hosts a unique display of over 100 Nativity Scenes from all over the world. It was fascinating to see how different cultures chose to represent the crèche. The great variety of materials used, the colors, even the size of the figures represent the vibrant expression of the people.
Because of my background, I sought out the crèches from Spain and I hoped that I would be able to find El Caganer. Alas, I did not. Maybe it is too insignificant a Spanish tradition, but my heart did sink a little, as I have fond childhood memories of hunting for him in the crèche and proudly pointing him out to my parents.
The origins of this tradition are a bit imprecise, but most historians can agree that it started during the Baroque period. There is, however, an unwritten rule about El Caganer. He is never placed anywhere close to Mary, Joseph, or Jesus. Rather, he is tucked away behind a bush, or a bale of hay.
Although we do not know how this tradition began, it is a centuries old element of popular iconography that reminds us of our humanity, bringing a note of realism to the sacred representation of the Nativity. But, the most common explanation for the presence of this incongruous character is that it reminds us that Christ will enter our lives not when WE are ready but when HE is ready.