Thursday 1 February 2024

24 for '24

LGBT History Month UK is with us again. Following on from my previous post about the number 24 being regarded as homophobic, I will reclaim the number for our community and present 24 facts and trivia about the lgbt+ community and culture. You may even already know about some of these, and some of these come from posts and articles I have written in the past.

1) The first AIDS awareness ribbon was created by Barnaby Miln (b.1947), an openly gay member of the General Synod of the Church of England, who distributed small pieces of rainbow ribbon in 1986 through his charity Christian Action on AIDS. Miln also came up with the idea of World AIDS Day.

2) The door of Freddie Mercury’s garden lodge was sold at auction in 2023 for £400,000 ($508,160). It was covered in hand-written tributes and messages left by fans following his death in 1991.

3) Ukrainian lgbt+ soldiers have taken to wearing a unicorn badge on their uniform in defiance of Russia’s homophobic laws. Russia has claimed that lgbt+ soldiers don’t exist in their own army, so the Ukrainian soldiers adopted a non-existence animal to represent themselves.

4) Scientific studies have shown that there is a higher percentage of left-handed people (like myself) in the lgbt+ community than in the non-lgbt+ community.

5) In 1967 the state of Illinois became the first in the USA to decriminalise homosexuality.

6) Following the accession of King Charles III, Ellen Lascelles (b.1984) became 74th in line of succession to the UK throne (merely a hypothetical list beyond the first 3 or 4). Ellen is currently (Feb 2024) 76th, and the highest placed member of the lgbt+ community on the list.

7) The clownfish can change gender as it grows older. All clownfish are born male, and some change gender when there is a shortage or absence of female clownfish. It makes you see the Disney film “Finding Nemo” in a new light!

8) Noel Currer-Briggs (1919-2004), one of several gay World War II codebreakers who worked at Bletchley Park with Alan Turing, was a prominent genealogist of the late 20th century, and a leading authority on the Shroud of Turin, the suppose shroud of Christ.

9) Nicholas Cherrywood (b.1996) of Dallas, USA, a gay model and make-up artist, holds the current Guinness World Record for owning the biggest collection of Care Bears memorabilia and items. He has collected 1,234 items with an estimated value of £120,000 ($152,379). Incidentally, Nicholas Cherrywood is also the name of one the villains in the Care Bears franchise.

10) This week in Venice they are halfway through their annual carnival. Cat masks, called “gnago” or “gnaghe” are popular, and were once a sign of homosexuality. In the 16th century male prostitutes wore cat masks during the carnival to approach prospective clients. Homosexuality was illegal, but Venetian law said that wearing a mask during carnival meant you were playing a character and not yourself, so you couldn’t be arrested. However, female prostitutes complained that their business was being taken away, so…

11) …in 1511 the Venetian authorities added female prostitutes to their list of commercial enterprises who were required by law to display their wares in public. Female prostitutes were thus allowed to lean out of windows with their breasts exposed. That’s why modern Venice has a Street of Breasts and a Bridge of Breasts. And all because male prostitutes were taking their business away.

12) Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, built by the gay King Ludwig II (1845-1886), became familiar to millions of children after 1968 when it featured prominently in the film “Chitty Chitty, Bang Bang” as the castle of Baron Bomburst.

13) The first player in the Ladies Professional Golf Association to come out publicly while still a competitor was Muffin Spencer-Devlin (b.1953) in 1996.

14) Figures originally published by the Office for National Statistics based on the 2021 UK census mistakenly overestimated the number of people self-identifying as pansexual due to a faulty census code. The figure was originally published was 112,000. The corrected figure published in October 2023 is 48,000.

15) The oldest known lgbt+ couple to get married did so on 6th September 2014. Vivien Bazack (1923-2016) and Verona “Nonie” Dubes (1924-2022) married in the First Christian Church, Davenport, Iowa, USA. Vivien was 91, Nonie was 90.

16) The urban rainbow-painted road crossings that are popular in some cities around the world are thought to have originated in Taiwan in June 2008. The first was part of a gender equality campaign created by Prof. Jerry H. Hsia and the Graduate School of Fine Arts.

17) The longest surviving rainbow crossing is in West Hollywood, California, USA. It was created to celebrate Gay Pride Month 2012.

18) The gay Baron Franz Nopcsa von Felső-Szilvás (1877-1933) has been called the Father of Palaeobiology because he tried to work out how dinosaurs lived and theorised that they are the ancestors of birds. Scientists mocked him, but his ideas are now considered standard knowledge.

19) Deborah Sampson (1760-1827), who served in the American Revolution dressed as a man, is the only historical lgbt+ female to feature on a flag. She appears on the town flag of Plympton, Massachusetts, USA, where she was born.

20) In 2012, military historian Gavin Menzies wrote a book claiming that Zheng He (1371-c.1434), a Chinese admiral and eunuch, “discovered” the American continent in 1421. The claim is generally regarded as pseudo-history without genuine evidence, though Zheng He was a great explorer.

21) In 2019, Otis Francis-Smith became the first baby to be carried by both female parents. Lance-Corporal Donna Francis-Smith is the biological mother whose egg was fertilised and then implanted into her partner Jasmine Francis-Smith, who gave birth to Otis. The procedure has successfully been carried out only once more since then.

22) Von Steuben Day is celebrated in mid-September every year in several cities across the USA, primarily in New York City and Philadelphia. It commemorates Baron Friedrich von Steuben (1730-1794), a Prussian officer regarded as the Father of the American Revolutionary Army. He fled from Europe to escape accusations of homosexuality.

23) New Zealand was the first country to legally recognise gender-diverse identities in 2015. Technically, the law includes anyone who identifies as a straight drag performer.

24) Clatterdevengeance is a derogatory slang term for the penis which appears only twice in print (other than slang dictionaries). It appears in two satirical broadsheets called “Mercurius Demoncritus” by John Crouch in 1659 and 1660. They were published at the end of the Protectorate, the period when England was a republic, and just before the restoration of the monarchy.

Monday 15 January 2024

The World's Most Homophobic Number?

It’s not a pleasant note to begin the New Year with, but 2024 may be regarded by some as a year to avoid because the number 24 is considered as unlucky as the number 13, particularly in Brazil. The only difference is that 24’s reputation stems from its association with homosexuality. Is it the world’s most homophobic number?

So many numbers are considered as either lucky of unlucky. Most of these beliefs are based on superstition or pseudo-numerology.

We don’t have to go that far back to discover why. To 1892, in fact. That’s within the lifetimes of two of my grandparents, both of whom lived into the 1980s. The story behind it involves a monkey farm, a zoo, and a lottery.

We’ll start with the monkey farm. Despite first impressions, the monkey farm, or the Fazenda do Macacos, was a complex of fruit orchards, gardens and sugar cane plantations in Rio de Janeiro. Once owned by the Franciscans, it got its name because it was over-run by monkeys in the harvesting season, all eager to snatch some fresh fruit.

The Fazenda passed from the Franciscans to the Portuguese crown, of which Brazil was still then a colony, in the 1750s. After independence in 1825 the first Emperor of Brazil, as the King of Portugal became, visited the Fazenda from Portugal for hunting and riding. After several years the emperor stopped visiting Rio and the Fazenda began to be neglected. By the 1870s the Rio municipal authorities were developing the area around the Fazenda. João Batista Viana Drummond, Baron Drummond (1825-1897) bought the Fazenda in 1872 and decided to create Rio’s first zoo on the site in 1888.

Entry to the zoo was free, but the baron received tax rebates and subsidies from the city council. This financial arrangement soon vanished the following year when Brazil became a republic. Income and attendance at the zoo fell, so in 1892 Baron Drummond came up with a lottery to raise funds, basing it on animals in his zoo.

The lottery was called the Jogo do Bicho, or Game of Beasts. Everyone visiting the zoo could buy a ticket upon which were printed the name of one of 25 different animals in the zoo. At the start of each day the baron would chose which animal would be the winning ticket. A picture of the chosen animal was revealed later that day, and holders of the winning tickets won the prize money. The winning animal was publicised in the Rio newsagents.

Very soon people were asking for tickets of their favourite or lucky animals. Then people began buying tickets without entering the zoo, and the whole thing blew up into a big gambling racket. Within four years some people were buying tickets in bulk, and these “intermediaries” began re-selling them on the streets for a profit. The lottery gradually evolved. Numbers were allotted to each of the 25 animals, and soon people began betting on their favourite number as well. Bets were taken in newspaper kiosks, on street corners and anywhere the “intermediaries” could attract custom.

By this time Baron Drummond was dead, and most of the money from ticket sales that should have gone to the zoo was going into the pockets of the “intermediaries”. In the 1890s the Brazilian government tried to crack down of gambling, but the Jogo do Bicho survived because police and local authorities turned a blind eye, and were probably being bribed. Officially the Jogo do Bicho was banned in 1946, but it still survives as an underground lottery, which everyone, including the government, knows about.

So, why did the number 24 in the Jogo do Bicho lottery become associated with the gay community and become so homophobic? It’s all about one of those animals featured on the tickets, specifically the animal that was numbered 24, a deer. In Portuguese this animal is called “veado”. In the mid-20th century the word “veado” began to be used as a derogatory term for gay men in Brazil, first appearing in print in 1956. Because the Jogo do Bicho was such a huge part of Brazilian culture, it wasn’t long before people were linking the number 24 with homosexuality purely because it was the number assigned to a deer on the lottery ticket.

The link between 24 and the deer may even have been a misunderstanding of the word “veado”, because there is another theory that says that “veado” is short for “transviado”, which means “deviant” or “immoral”. There may be no connection to a deer at all. But this hasn’t stopped 24 from being regarded as both unlucky, and unmanly. In Brazilian sport there are many sportsmen who refuse to play in a team (e.g in football) if their shirt number is 24. There have been a few cases in recent years of male footballers defiantly wearing 24 on their shirt, regardless of the homophobic abuse they receive from fans during a match because of it. Other people renumber their house if it is number 24, changing it 23.5. There are people who would prefer not to celebrate their 24th birthday, and celebrate being 23+1 instead. There’s even 23+1 birthday candles (pictured above).

Even though gambling in Brazil is illegal (mainly applying to casinos) the Jogo do Bicho still exists, though its 20th century history was polluted by the involvement of crime gangs and money laundering. But two surprising outcomes of their involvement is the formation of local football (soccer) clubs, and the growth of the carnival parade culture in Brazil.

Although crime gangs weren’t the only influence on carnival culture, the money they accumulated through their use of “intermediaries” to sell Jogo do Bicho tickets at a profit went towards keeping the local citizens on their side, so to speak, without having to make overt threats. To do this, the crime bosses gave money to local communities to set up football clubs (and we know how much Brazilians love their football) and samba dance schools (samba being a vital part of the carnival culture, which the Brazilians love just as equally). This was more effective in the larger Brazilian cities. It could be claimed that the famous carnival parades in Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo only became so big through the money given by crime gangs.

Back to the number 24 and homosexuality. Just like the Nazi pink triangle the lgbt+ community has begun to “reclaim” the number 24 and use it to help the cause of democracy. This was seen during Brazil’s municipal elections in 2012 when over 100 lgbt+ candidates stood for election. All candidates receive an official electoral number, without which they could not legally stand for election. Many of the lgbt+ candidates included the number 24 in their electoral number.

The 2012 election saw the largest ever number of lgbt+ candidates in municipal election in Brazil up to that time. According to Associação Brasileira de Lésbicas, Gays, Bissexuais, Travestis e Transexuais (ABGLT), a leading lgbt+ rights organisation in Brazil, there were only 78 in the previous election in 2008.

One of the 2012 candidates was Bia Ifran Oliveira (1969-2019), a transgender candidate for the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Worker’s Party) in the election to the city council of São Borja, her home city in the southernmost province of Brazil. The 2012 election was taking place several years before Brazil passed the law recognising non-reassigned transgender individuals’ right to legally change their gender on their birth certificates, so Bia was registered as a male candidate.

Bia was a hairdresser and stylist as a profession and was well-known figure in São Borja. She was president of the city’s prestigious samba school (not founded by Jogo do Bicho crime gangs as far as I can discover), which is also one of the biggest participants in the city’s annual carnival parade. Bia was also an lgbt+ activist. She was the first transwoman to run for municipal election for the Partido dos Trabalhadores. Below is one of her campaign adverts in which you can see her election number containing 24. In the election Bia won 339 votes, placing her 35th, which isn’t bad when you consider that she was up against 102 other candidates.

It remains to be seen whether the stigma attached to 24 in Brazil will finally disappear during 2024. After all, it’s the first time that the number has been part of the year number since it became a derogatory term. Brazil is one of those contradictory places – you hear so much about homophobia and transgender murders, yet at the end 2023 Brazil was placed higher than the UK and the USA in many equality indexes (I’ve never understood the USA’s self-declared place as a champion of lgbt rights anyway). Just in case you question Brazil’s placing, you can do what I did and look online (organisations which publish figures include the UN, World Population Review, Human Rights Campaign, Amnesty International, Equaldex, and many more).

But let’s forget about the stigma and homophobia of the number 24 and follow the example of Brazil’s lgbt candidates in 2012 and make 2024 the year in which we can all show that it is a year of hope, acceptance and enlightenment for all communities of every race, gender, politics, faith, non-faith, age, ability, culture, and opinion.

Wednesday 3 January 2024

What's in Store for '24

Happy New Year.

This year is going to be busy for me. This is an Olympic year, with the summer games being held in Paris this coming July and August. There’s also the Olympic Youth Winter Games later this month. 

My Olympic research has increased in the past months as I have been tracking over 200 lgbt athletes as they compete in Olympic qualifying and ranking events, of which there are over a dozen each week. The all-time lgbt Olympian list currently stands at 710. I doubt if it’ll get up to 750 before the games begin in July, but you never know.

On top of all that, I still have a “proper” job to go to five days a week. What this means is that I have less time to research other subjects. But I don’t want to neglect covering the diversity of topics that I have for the past 12 years. They will be less frequent this year. 

I have produced a schedule of what I am planning to post in 2024. The list below is purely provisional. If any significant event or subject crops up I may have to reschedule some articles. There may be additional posts that are just links to YouTube videos or other articles, whatever I think you might be interested in.

Here is my provisional calendar for the first half of 2024. 

January 15 – The World’s Most Homophobic Number? 

February 1 – LGBT History Month UK - 24 Fax for ‘24. 

March 1 – City Pride (an Asian city). 

March 27 – Spy Wednesday: Covering Bond. 

April 26 – An early French Olympian. 

May 17 – Game of Gay Thrones 9. 

June 10 – Heraldic Alphabet 2024. 

July 1 – (Not Quite) 80 Gays Around the World: Part 6. 

July 24 – Eve of the Olympics.

Sunday 24 December 2023

Advent 4: Away in a Manger

Something short and sweet today, because it’s Christmas Eve and I’m sure most of us will be busy doing last-minute shopping and preparations for tomorrow. I know I do.

“Away in the manger” is one of the most popular Christmas carols in the English-speaking world. It sums up the atmosphere of a stable with a family celebrating the birth of their new born baby son. This year we celebrate 800 years of the Christmas crib scene, those models and representations of the birth of Jesus in the stable. They come in all shapes and sizes and are mainly set up in churches but they appear almost everywhere at this time of year.

I remember a special one from my childhood. It was a scene of the Nativity, made in brown plastic about 6 inches high. It was clockwork, and when you wound it up it played “Silent Night”, and a circle of plastic donkeys would revolve around the central scene of Many, Joseph and the baby Jesus. It got wound up a lot, and I’m surprised it lasted so many years. I wonder if my brother still has it.

The person we have to thank for coming up with the idea of having a scene of the Nativity to celebrate Christmas is a famous queer saint I wrote about earlier this year – St. Francis of Assisi.

Fortunately, I don’t need to write about today it because I did so several years ago in my Advent series of 2019. So, I’ll direct you there.

Thank you all for following me throughout 2023. I hope you have a very Merry Christmas, Happy Holiday, and all my seasonal best wishes to you all.

Sunday 17 December 2023

Advent 3: A Swedish Spirit Of Christmas

Most people are aware that the familiar character of Santa Claus got a big boost in popularity after the publication of the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas”, popularly known by its opening line “Twas the night before Christmas”. More than anything else, this poem cemented the idea that St. Nicholas and Santa Claus are the same character, even though they’re not.

Actually, this Christmas is special for two special reasons. You’ll have to wait until next Sunday for one reason, but the other is that this year is the 200th anniversary of the publication of “A Visit From St. Nicholas” on 23rd December 1823.

In the many nations where Santa Claus and St. Nicholas are not really part of their heritage, there are other gift-givers, as I’ve highlighted a few times in various past Advent series. One of these other gift-givers is the Scandinavian tomte (mentioned briefly last week in relation to modern St. Lucy Day processions).

The Christmas tomte evolved from ancient (probably pagan) house spirits, and every home had/has one. These spirits are known across Scandinavia under various alternative names – in Sweden the name is tomte, but they also use tomtenisse and jultomte (the latter literally means “Yule/Christmas tomte). They often appear like elves at Christmas celebrations helping out Santa or joining in the St. Lucy processions. Modern representations of the gift-giving version follow the 19th century image that resembles a garden gnome. (A big digression here, but the animator who drew the dwarves for the Disney classic “Snow White” was Swedish, so probably based them on the tomte).

Just as Santa Claus became more popular after the publication of “A Visit From St. Nicholas”, so the tomte became popular in Scandinavia through a poem. The poem was called “Tomten”, which is also known by its opening line. The poem was written by a gay folklorist and writer called Viktor Rydberg (1828-1895) and was first published in a weekly newspaper called “Ny Illustrrerad Tidning” (New Illustrated Newspaper) on 19th February 1881. The tomte was illustrated on the front cover (pictured above).

To say “Tomten” is a poem for children would not be entirely accurate, though it is now a family favourite in Sweden at Christmas time. In the poem the tomte is presented as a lone figure on a cold, snowy night, standing by a barn door. He shakes off thoughts about a difficult question he is pondering so he can do his rounds of the farmstead, checking that all doors are closed, and that the farm animals and equipment are safe and secure.

Lastly, he checks that the farm owner and his family are warm in their beds. As he does so he finds that the difficult question comes back into his mind. He has been looking after this family for many generations, but he wonders where all the older generations disappear to. He ponders on the passing of life.

The poem has been labelled an existential comment on the meaning of life and death and the passing of time. I’m sure we all think about how things change in our personal life, and the people who are no longer with us at Christmas. This could be why the adults who read it felt how it resonated with their own thoughts of loved ones missing at Christmas.

Despite the poem “Tomten” becoming such a Christmas favourite, it wasn’t set during that celebration. It was just set during winter. However, Rydberg has quite a strong association with Christmas apart from this poem. Back in 2018 I included him in my Advent series when I mentioned his support for the suggested year of Christ’s birth. Rydberg had already written a Christmas story the previous year called (in English) “Little Vigg’s Adventure on Christmas Eve”. I won’t go into “Little Vigg” today, but I’ll try to include it in next year’s Advent series.

Later editions of both “Little Vigg” and “Tomte” were illustrated by Jenny Nyström (1854-1940). She and Rydberg became close friends. Jenny’s illustrations of the tomte in this and many illustrations and greetings cards, helped to create a standard image of the tomte in much the same way that J. C. Leyendecker did for the modern Santa Claus.

Today, the tomte is everywhere in Sweden. As well as being incorporated into St. Lucy Day processions on 13th December, he appears several weeks before that, giving out presents on the day before Advent. This year that fell on 2nd December. This date is called Lilla Jul, or Little Christmas, and is celebrated mainly by Swedish-speaking Finns. On this day tomte leave little gifts for children.

The popularity of the tomte, in all its names and forms, has spread beyond Scandinavia. In the shops in the UK this year the shelves are stuffed full of “gonks” dressed as tomte as Christmas toys and decorations, replacing the elves that were everywhere last year.Between them, Viktor Rydberg and J. C. Leyendecker, with their tomte and Santa Claus, have made the yuletide gay, as the song goes, in a bigger way than it was before.

Sunday 10 December 2023

Advent 2: Lucy Boys

The participants in a Lucy procession

This coming Wednesday is the feast day of St. Lucy, or St. Lucia. In Scandinavia and parts of Italy and Croatia, this is the day on which children receive Christmas presents. If they’re really lucky they’ll have had presents on St. Nicholas’s Day (Dec. 6th) and will get more on Christmas Day itself.

St. Lucy’s Day is celebrated with church processions, family meals, and lots of tradition. In 2021 I looked briefly at the history of the Lucy processions from their origins in boys’ schools. In Scandinavia the original processions were led by a boy, originally portraying the Christkind (Christ Child), but this character evolved into St. Lucy, still played by a boy.

With this in mind it seems strange to historians to hear of several places in Scandinavia where controversy erupts over the portrayal of St. Lucy by boys in modern processions. This is invariably the result of the critics’ collective cultural amnesia and ignorance of its origins. Critics claim to be upholding tradition, when they probably mean that they don’t want their Lucy processions to be corrupted by being led by a boy in drag.

Who knows, perhaps before the internet and social media made it capable of discovering who remote or little villages chose to play their St. Lucy, there were lots of male St. Lucys (who I will refer to as Lucy Boys, as opposed to the Star Boys, which I’ll come to later). There was certainly an increase in the reporting of Lucy Boys after 2008.

There were three cases of protests against teenage Lucy Boys in Swedish schools that year which became prominent headlines. The boys who were the targets of those protests were (with the schools they attended): Freddy Karlberg of Södra School in Mötala, Johan Gustafsson of Erik Dahlberggsgymnasiet in Jönköping, and Nils Wiking Furberg of Lillerud high school.

All three teenagers were elected by their respective schoolmates to play St. Lucy in their school’s annual Lucy procession. However, in two cases the school principals objected to the election. They stated that it is traditional for a girl to be St. Lucy, since the saint herself was female. This was echoed by many parents of other pupils at those schools (no doubt angry that their daughter lost out on being St. Lucy to a boy).

I’m all in favour of tradition, but I also believe that there can be some room for change. We live in an era of greater diversity of representation. Diversity should not always have to create division. As I wrote above, St. Lucy was originally played by boys, so there’s no real alteration in tradition in this case. Again, collective cultural amnesia is the reason, and that can be harmful.

Early Lucy processions comprised of only St. Lucy and a group of girls dressed as “Lucy Brides”. Then Star Boys were introduced. In the last part of the 20th century the processions expanded to include such characters as gingerbread men and tomte (Scandinavian house spirits or elves, which I’ll talk about next Sunday).

In the cases of Freddy and Nils Wiking the school principals said that their decision was taken to protect the boys from abuse. This is quite valid, since they did receive abuse, and it is the responsibility of all teachers to protect their pupils. However, the principals stated that that had no personal objection to a male Lucy, if the procession was just confined to school staff and pupils. The processions were open to the public, with parents and local people present. The Lucy Boys might “upset the pensioners”, the principals also claimed.

There were three different outcomes to the three cases.

Freddy Karlberg was prevented from being a Lucy Boy because of his principal’s decision to not recognise his election. Several students boycotted the Lucy procession in protest.

Nils Wiking Furberg pulled out of the Lucy procession before it took place. His principal had actually backed down and was willing to let him be St. Lucy. What changed the boy’s mind was the amount of online abuse he received on social media.

Johan Gustafsson fared the best out of the three. He was allowed to be St. Lucy – with a twist. The school’s Lucy procession began very “traditionally” with a female Lucy, Veronica Ahlund. Halfway through the traditional St. Lucy’s carol, Veronica invited Johan to take her place. Johan had been playing a Star Boy. He removed his conical Star Boy hat and placed the candle-crown of St. Lucy on his head. Media reports say that the congregation cheered. Credit should also go to the school principal, Stefan Claason, for supporting Johan’s election from the start against much criticism.

Incidents of Lucy Boys being elected and denied their place in processions continue as does the debate over what is or is not considered traditional.

But what about those Star Boys I mentioned? In the Lucy processions they follow the Lucy Brides who walk behind St. Lucy. These boys wear white robes and tall conical hats. They usually also carry a star on a stick (hence Star Boys, obviously).

You’d think that there’s be nothing controversial about Star Boys, but you’d be wrong. In 2012 a 9-year-old girl in a Stockholm school wanted to be a Star Boy. Her school principal refused to let this happen, again citing tradition. Instead he girl was offered the role of a tomte, which the girl accepted.

In 2014, an 11-year-old girl from Skellafteå, high up on Sweden’s Baltic coastline, was told she couldn’t be a tomte in her Lucy procession because only boys can be a tomte. This was strange, because for the previous two or three years she had been one, and now she was told she couldn’t because she was a girl. The school principal’s reason? Again, the girl might scare pensioners who were coming to watch the procession. Happily, the principal changed her mind.

Who would have thought that something as seemingly innocent as a St. Lucy’s Day procession could generate so much gender controversy? Changing gender roles in traditional customs should not automatically be taken as an attack on that tradition. History teaches us that Christmastime has always had a large element of switching gender roles, even within Christian tradition (early portrayals of the Virgin Mary in church processions were usually played by young male clerics). True, most of it stems from the historic practice of not allowing women to take part (except that we must not forget girls played the male Christkind since the 17th century). What is important is that all participants and spectators in any traditional custom should be aware that it differs from previous observances, where cultural attitudes and even technology create change. That’s how the modern Christmas has evolved, and Christmas traditions have evolved too.

There are many other modern cases of switched gender roles at Christmas customs that have been accepted. In Spain, where the Three Kings are the dominant gift-bringers and have their own parades, some of the kings have been played by women – some with false beards. There have even been some female Santa Claus’s in the USA since the 1950s, also with beards, and three of them have been inducted into the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame. There are even drag Santas.

Whether you enjoy traditional Christmas parades and processions or not, let’s celebrate them all in their fabulous variety. After all, when you see a Santa or St. Lucy, you shouldn’t see the person playing that character. As some Christmas films often say about Santa – once you put on a Santa suit, you become Santa. This can be said of all benevolent Christmas characters, whether it’s Santa, St. Lucy, the Three Kings, the Christkind, or any of the hundreds of other Christmas characters there are around the world. It’s not cosplay. It’s not playing a historical character, even if it’s based on one. You become a manifestation of a concept that enhances both the secular and religious elements of an ever-evolving Christmas.

Sunday 3 December 2023

Advent 1: The First Christmas Card

It’s the start of Advent today, and it’s perilously close to Christmas and I haven’t thought about sending any Christmas cards yet. I prefer sending cards through the post because electronic means removes all physical connection between me and the receiver (and is just an excuse to be lazy and imply that I don’t care enough about my family and friends or think they’re worth the mild inconvenience of buying a card, writing it and posting it). It’s always better to know that the card you receive actually has the person’s DNA on it, don’t you think?

The official history of the Christmas card begins in 1843 when the first modern card was produced. But did you know that there is something that could be regarded as the first Christmas card that was sent in 1611? It also has a link to the lgbt+ community because the person who received it was our old gay friend King James I of Great Britain (1566-1625).

They may not have had our idea of a Christmas card in those days, but they exchanged presents, usually after Christmas Day, and more usually at New Year or the big Christmas feasting day of Twelfth Night (6th January).

The card King James received was actually a folded manuscript which may originally have been presented to him as a scroll. The centre of the manuscript contains the figure of a rose. This is significant, because it was sent and signed by Michael Maier (1568-1622), a German physician, alchemist, and advocate of a new religion called Rosicusianism (or Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross). The shape of the rose figure is made up of text in Latin forming a greeting to King James and an acrostic message of blessings.

Above the rose is a greeting, also in Latin. It says “A greeting on the birthday of the Sacred King, to the most worshipful and energetic lord and most eminent James, King of Great Britain and Ireland, and Defender of the true faith, with a gesture of joyful celebration of the Birthday of the Lord, in most joy and fortune, we enter into the new auspicious year 1612. Dedicated and consecrated with humble service and submission, from Michael Maier, German, Count Palatine, Doctor of Medicine and Philosophy, Knight and Poet Laureate.” If that’s doesn’t sound like a very fancy way of saying “Best wishes, King James, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, from Michael Maier”, I don’t know what is.

But why did Michael Maier send the message? And what is significant about the Rosicrucian symbolism?

What is Rosicrucianism anyway? It’s not so much a new religion as a new esoteric movement that combined aspects of several other religions. It included Christian mysticism, the Kabbala (a mixture of occultism, astrology, alchemy and bit of Christian and Jewish doctrine), and Hermeticism (the teachings of a legendary figure who was considered to be the Greek god Hermes merged with the Egyptian god Thoth). Rosicrucianism still exists today, but is more akin to a revival, like neo-paganism and modern wicca.

No-one knows when Michael Maier arrived in England, only that it was sometime during 1611. As far as the Christmas message is concerned, there’s no evidence that he delivered it in person, or that he was even still in England at the time. However, Maier was back in England during 1612 for a very special reason – the signing of the marriage settlement between King James’ daughter Princess Elizabeth to Prince Friedrich V, Elector Palatine of the Rhine (later the King and Queen of Bohemia). Maier presented a poem to King James in celebration. Perhaps his Christmas message was a diplomatic greeting during the marriage negotiations. This marriage was primarily political, made to cement an alliance between two Protestant nations, but there has been speculation about another reason for Maier’s presence, to cement a secret Rosicrucian alliance.

In the same year that Maier sent his Christmas message to King James, the monarch published a new version of the Bible, what is still called the King James Bible. Among many Rosicrucian historians there is a belief that this new Bible contains many coded Rosicrucian references, and that many of the men who put the Bible together were secretly Rosicrucian. This would provide Maier with a good reason for Rosicrucian elements to be put in his Christmas message. It all sounds very “da Vinci Code” to me – a lot of circumstantial evidence linked together with fanciful speculation.

Maier himself wrote that he had only heard about the Rosicrucians when he was in England. This makes it unlikely that he would put any secret symbolism in his message. So far, non-one has come up with any evidence that someone else wrote the message and used Maier as a courier. Why would he sign his own name? So it seems unlikely for him to be sent on a secret Rosicrucian mission to England as claimed. But, if he had heard about them early enough in 1611 and got to learn all their teachings and beliefs he may have put them in his message. Who knows?

King James didn’t adopt Rosicrucianism, which was probably a good thing bearing in mind that Rosicrucianism, even today, is quite homophobic. The last thing King James had on his mind was getting rid of his “toy boys” to please a German monarch.

Speaking of which, Michael Maier was involved in the Overbury Murder, the mysterious death of Sir Thomas Overbury in 1613. King James’ toy boy at the time, Sir Robert Carr, was found guilty of his murder. You can read a bit more about in this article I wrote a few years ago.

While Overbury was imprisoned in the Tower of London his health deteriorated. Several times he wrote to the Lieutenant of the Tower to permit Michael Maier to visit him as his physician. This was denied every time and Overbury died. His death was treated as natural, though several conspiracy theories circulated. It was two years later that evidence emerged that Overbury was murdered, and Sir Robert Carr was one of the people dragged into the conspiracy and found guilty of murder. To be honest, Carr probably was involved.

So, King James’s very first Christmas card has a lot more behind it than just a seasonal message of good cheer. There were secret codes and conspiracy theories. If you are still thinking of sending cards this year, yes, even an e-card, just take a look at the image and the greeting. You never know, there may be secret messages concealed in them.