Six Characters in Search of a Blogger

6.7 The Seventh Day: The Perfect Gift for that Person Who Has Everything
December 20, 2008, 8:00 am
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the Barack Obama caganer

Everybody poops: the Barack Obama caganer

Forget about the Barack Obama commemorative plates and coins that keep getting hocked on infomercials all across cable TV.

This Christmas, tell someone you care with the Barack Obama caganer.  No Nativity scene would be complete without the next President of the United States leaving a little bit of history for the Christ child.  

It’s also great as a potty training demo for toddlers:  everybody poops, and so does the President-Elect!  So why not buy this little symbol of “yes we can” for your bathroom?  

But act quickly!  Supplies are limited, and no doubt Republicans will soon be snatching these up while they make jokes about Obama’s effect on the economy.

So visit and buy this very special memento of the 2008 election today!

6.6 Yes, Virginia, there really is a Christmas Poo: Caga Tió (Catalonia, Spain)
December 19, 2008, 2:00 pm
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Mr. Hankey, the Christmas poo

Mr. Hankey, the Christmas poo

I have always had a soft spot in my heart for the Comedy Central animated series South Park, despite its political incorrectness, because it is just so damn clever.  And it is one of the few shows that can make me laugh so hard I cry.

When I first saw the episode featuring Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo, in 1997, it was one of those moments when I just couldn’t stop laughing.  It was so bizarre!  A talking piece of poo appears to one of the characters (Kyle, who happens to be Jewish) as a secular alternative to the religious symbols of Christmas; but Kyle is the only one who actually sees Mr. Hankey, at least in his singing and dancing persona.  Everyone else around Kyle only sees him carrying around a piece of feces.  And, of course, it is assumed that Kyle is mentally ill.

I thought, what in the heck do Trey Parker and Matt Stone smoke to come up with these outlandish ideas?

the caganer leaves a special gift for the Christ child

Forget the gold, frankincense, and myrrh: the caganer leaves a special gift for the Christ child

And then this week, I realized that Mr. Hankey had probably been inspired by a very strange set of Christmas traditions in Catalonia, Spain, where the holiday season could be called a veritable festival of poo.  There, Nativity scenes feature the standard Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus, as well as animals, shepherds and Wise Men.  But another critical attendee at this most celebrated of birth scenes is the caganer (trans. “the pooing man”) who deposits a very special gift before the Christ child:  his excretions.  (Apparently, Catalan manger scenes have also been expanded to include the pixaner, who takes a leak to show his reverence before the infant Son of God.)

Christmas tradition in Catalonia also includes the magical figure of caga tió, literally “the pooping log,” which has an honored place during holiday celebrations.  Beginning on December 8 (the feast of the Immaculate Conception) the hollowed log is “fed” or filled with gifts, and covered with a blanket for comfort.  Then, on Christmas Day, children beat it so that it will “poo” treats for them.  There are even special songs that go along with the event:

caga tió, the pooping Christmas log

caga tió, the pooping Christmas log


Poop log,

Poop turron (a nougat-based Catalan candy)

Hazelnuts and cottage cheese;

If you don’t poop well,

I’ll hit you with a stick,

Poop log! 


Following the song, the log is hit fairly hard, and someone will reach under the blanket to extract the gift that has just been defecated.  Once the gift is revealed, the process begins again.

You know, I have never held natural bodily processes in such reverence.  Are the Catalans suggesting that I should?  Perhaps.  But somehow, I don’t think wrapping up such a–well, excremental?–memento and putting it under the tree would be appreciated by the folks on my Christmas list.  (Although it might make a great follow-up SNL skit for Andy Samberg, whose “D**k in a Box” Digital Short was such a hit a few years ago.)

But I suppose there is a little part of me (once I get past the initial revulsion) that is rather happy that there are precedents for Mr. Hankey in the world.  It feels a bit like that moment from the famous 1897 letter/editorial in the New York Sun, written to a young Virginia O’Hanlon about the existence of Santa Claus.  (I’ve made the appropriate substitutions): 

No [Christmas poo]? Thank God!  He lives, and lives forever.  A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

And now, to make glad your heart as we approach Christmas week, a little sample of Mr. Hankey’s magic; click HERE, and enjoy!

6.5 The broom, the witch, and the magi: La Befana (Italy)
December 19, 2008, 11:50 am
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housekeeper extraordinaire

La Befana: housekeeper extraordinaire

On the eve of Epiphany (Jan. 6, celebrated as the day the Wise Men find the Christ child), you will find a broom-riding witch circling above the rooftops of Italy, intermittently diving down chimneys to deliver goodies to children.  Her name is La Befana.

Yes, La Befana is the latest in the bizarre pantheon of characters around the world who is said to give presents to children during the Christmas season.  But why a witch?  And a rather scary one at that?  (I am beginning to wonder why more children don’t have more nightmares at this time of year.)  Well, apparently the story goes like this:  La Befana was just an ordinary old woman, cleaning her house and going about her business, when the Magi (the three wise men of gold, frankincense and myrrh fame) showed up at her door asking for directions to the Christ child.  She had no idea, but gave them shelter in her home overnight.  They found the experience so pleasant that they invited her along on their journey the next day; but she declined, saying she was too busy with housework.  Later that night, she regretted the decision, and set off to find them, with no luck.  

Since then, every year, La Befana is said to be searching for the Christ child, and flies around on her broom leaving toys and candy in the stockings of good little children (and lumps of coal or ashes in the bad.)  As an added bonus, before she leaves the house, La Befana sweeps your floors so you wake up on the morning of Epiphany with a sparkling home.  But watch out!  If you see her during the night she’ll give you a thump with her broom.

OK, La Befana, despite the fact that you would likely scare the bejeezus out of my neighbors, and offend some of my feminist friends, I’d officially like to invite you to my home in the U.S. this Christmas.  Because anyone who wants to leave me candy and clean floors is more than welcome.

6.4 Don’t. Forget. The. Butter: tomte, the Christmas gnome (Sweden)
December 18, 2008, 1:09 am
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The Tomte

The Tomte

If you live in Sweden, legend has it that each home has its own little helper/guardian, the Tomte, who lives snug under the floorboards, and comes out at night to take care of the house and protect its inhabitants.   (Don’t try to see him; he can easily make himself invisible.) 

At Christmas, the Tomte distributes holiday gifts to members of the family, often providing rhymed clues about the contents.  In return, the family is asked to leave a bowl of porridge for the Tomte to snack on–but, very importantly, the porridge must have butter on top; if it doesn’t, be prepared for the consequences.  He’ll morph from a cuddly, industrious little gnome into a rage-filled, schizophrenic meth addict.  He’ll burn your tree.  He’ll smear your walls with human waste.  He will cut you.

Well, perhaps I exaggerate a little.  But he will make a mess.  So do yourself a favor–don’t try to substitute with margarine or Olivio or some silly soy-based product.  Go for the Swedish equivalent of Land o’ Lakes.  (Land av Insjö ?)  You can thank me later.

6.3 The Christmas butcher of Paris: Père Fouettard (France)
December 17, 2008, 11:26 am
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Père Fouettard, the butcher-masochist

Père Fouettard, the butcher-masochist

Leave it to the French to somehow incorporate violent food preparation into their Christmas legends.

In France, “San Nicolas” is accompanied by Père Fouettard (alternately translated as the “whipping father” or the “bogeyman”), who plays bad cop to Saint Nick’s good cop.  On December 6, Saint Nick roams through France with his small donkey laden with gifts and treats, and each good boy and girl receives a present.  The bad girls and boys, however, receive a visit from Père Fouettard, who lashes them with his whip.

The origins of Père Fouettard are quite sinister.  He is said to have been a butcher who lured three young children into his shop, where he salted them and stored them away  for later use (some versions have him chopping the children in pieces and cooking them in a stew.  I’m guessing he used a little wine, a bouquet garni, garlic…oops, but back to the story.)  Through the intervention of St. Nicholas, however, the children are resurrected/saved, and returned to their families.  Père Fouettard was condemned to follow Saint Nick forever afterwards (and yet somehow, he gets the masochistic reward of whipping children for his sins?)

Check out this lovely illustration below (in which Père Fouettard is frighteningly reminiscent of the self-mutilating albino monk in The Da Vinci Code)–my rough translation appears beside it:


Père Fouettard:  I am Père Fouettard, I don’t like children.

Child, foreground:  Mom, I’m scared.

C’est bon.  A lovely Christmas sentiment.

6.2 Hey, Kids, Seriously–You’d Better Watch Out: Krampus (Austria)
December 17, 2008, 10:26 am
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The stuff of nightmares: Krampus

So in Austria, Santa’s (Heileger Nikolaus’s) gift-giving companion is…the devil.

I’m serious.

On the Feast of St. Nicholas (Dec. 6), Saint Nick and the devil (a goat-horned creature named Krampus), visit children to ask for lists of their good and bad deeds.  The nice ones get treats like toys and candy;  and the naughty ones get a whoopin’ with a tree branch from Krampus.

In the Austrian ski town of Schladming, there is a festival celebrating Krampus, where young men dress in elaborate goat demon costumes and roam about the town, getting drunk, ringing bells to warn of their approach, and hitting people with switches.  As one website suggests, “It is not considered wise for young women to go out on this night, as they are popular targets.”

Ah, yes.  Nothing says Christmas like a satanic bacchanal.

In this Austrian postcard from the early 1900s, St. Nick looks on as Krampus harrasses a young woman.  Nice.

In this Austrian postcard from the early 1900s, St. Nick looks on as Krampus harrasses a young woman. Nice.


(And for even more frightening photos of Krampus, click here and here.  Think Christmas meets Mordor.)

6.1 Fight the Power: Zwarte Piet (The Netherlands)


Sinterclaas and Zwarte Piet.  Is it me?  Why is he kneeling?

Zwarte Piet with Sinterclaas. Why is he kneeling?

Several years ago, my husband and I were in Amsterdam for a few weeks during the holiday season.  The city had transformed itself, with twinkling lights everywhere, festive decorations adorning alleys and canalways, and even an ice skating rink in Dam Square.  (I find the city beautiful in “normal” times of the year; but at Christmas it becomes quite magical.)  And then, something strange started to pop up in the picture postcard surroundings:  men in blackface sporting elaborate Renaissance garb began appearing out of nowhere, strolling the city and giving out candy and cookies.  Who is that?  I asked my British husband, rather alarmed.  “Oh, that’s Black Pete,” he replied nonchalantly.  Like there was nothing out of the ordinary about an Al Jolsonesque Othello, complete with neck ruffles, handing out treats to citizens of the 21st Century Netherlands.  I was flummoxed.

After that, images of Black Pete (whose more proper Dutch name is “Zwarte Piet”) began materializing everywhere.  I saw him in shop windows, adorning the labels of Christmas goods, and even in the form of animatronic dolls scaling ropes in a mall atrium.  And I became a bit obsessed.  Who was this Zwarte Piet?  What did he have to do with Christmas?  And why did he look like he was performing in Cirque de Soleil?  

So I did a little research.  And I found out that in Holland, Santa as we know him is Sinterklaas–he’s a close cousin to our own Santa Claus, dressed in red, with the same bushy white beard; the only difference is that he looks a bit more like a Catholic bishop than a secular resident of  the North Pole.  And, as Dutch tradition holds it, he arrives on December 5, not December 24 (St. Nicholas’ eve, his feast day) via steamboat from Spain, where he lives throughout the year.  (And seriously, who can blame him.  Give me the Costa del Sol any day over the wastes of the Arctic.)

And accompanying Sinterclaas on the steamboat every year is Zwarte Piet, Sinterclaas’s Moorish friend/servant/companion, who partners with him on the holiday gift-giving mission.  But here’s the catch.  “Partners” is a very loose term in this case, because Sinterclaas doesn’t actually deliver any of the presents.  No; he just gets the credit.  The legwork actually falls to Zwarte Piet, who, with a few of his friends, goes roof to roof delivering goodies to the children of Holland.

Now we are told that the reason for this is that Sinterclaas is too old and frail for such activity, and also that Zwarte Piet and his friends were former chimney sweeps (hence the blackface) and thus have “experience” on rooftops and entering houses in unorthodox ways.  (Yikes!  I’m not going to touch that one.)  But I say if an American Santa can make it down a chimney in all of his rotundity, then certainly a spry and lean Dutch one can.  The Dutch are fit.

So Piet (I hope you don’t mind if I call you Piet):  I have a message for you.  It’s the same one I had after I visited The Grasshopper several years ago, when I was simultaneously fixated on your fate and finding a 24 hour pastry shop (social justice and locating munchies seemed equally important at the time):  Fight the Power.  Stand up to The Man.  Demand equal pay for equal time.  Or if that doesn’t work out, at least ask for a wardrobe change.  Because believe me, pantaloons just aren’t practical in December.