Sunday 10 December 2017

The Four Santas of Advent : 2) Queer Gift-bringers

If there’s ever going to be something that definitely causes controversy among traditionalists over Santa Claus it’s the suggestion of any gay connection. Evangelical Christian churches and far-right groups, and quite a few parents, wouldn’t like the idea of a gay Santa going anywhere near their children.

When it comes to being someone who represents Santa for the season in shopping centres and malls the fact that you are gay is a very delicate matter considering the general view still prevalent in many conservative, traditionalist areas (especially in the USA but very rarely anywhere else) that gay men are a danger to children. So, when a documentary called “I Am Santa Claus” was aired in the US in 2014 which featured a gay man who was a professional Santa there was the predictable outcry.

The Santa in question was Jim Stevenson (pictured below), and he is one of the many hundreds of men who become Santa every year. It’s a recognised profession with unions and organisations run by and for themselves. Stevenson, who lives in Fort Worth, Texas, and was 73 when the documentary was made, is also a titleholder of several “bear” contests. He is proud of both achievements.
There were several professional Santas who objected to him being involved in their work purely because he is openly gay, but not while being Santa. On the whole, though, reactions to Jim’s appearance in the documentary were positive. It seems his critics hadn’t watched it. Like all true Santa Claus incarnations you meet in the shopping centres Jim is a dedicated professional, and just like all the others, once he puts on that red suit he stops being himself and becomes Santa.

One other recent upset occurred earlier this year when Harper Collins announced it was publishing a children’s book in which Santa is portrayed as being gay and black. Not only that, but instead of Mrs. Claus he is married to another Mr. Claus, a more traditional-looking white male Santa. As you would expect there was a massive outcry from certain people and traditionalists.

It all started this time last year. Of the many thousands of Santas who materialise in shopping centres and Christmas grottos every year most of them (in the USA at least) are white. When one shopping centre chose a black man to receive the essence of Santa there was a huge outcry on social media.

All the fuss led American humourist Daniel Kibblesmith and his wife to tweet that they would teach thier future children that the real Santa Claus was black was that his white husband is the one we see on Christmas cards and in grottos. It was all meant to be a bit of satire but some people took it seriously. One person responded to the tweet with “Stop rewriting history”. As we already know from the way Santa Claus is dressed that the way he looks today is NOT how he looked in history. No-one accused J. C. Leyendecker of rewriting history by never painting Santa Claus in anything other than red.

The best response came from illustrator A. P. Quach who almost immediately conjured up an illustration of the inter-racial Santas in an embrace looking dreamingly into each others eyes. Quach also received a lot of online trolling, but it gave him and Kibblesmith the impetus to produce an actual book telling the story of the two Santas. In October the book “Santa’s Husband” was published.

Whether a black, gay Santa will ever become mainstream only time will tell. Perhaps a black Santa, which I imagine is not all that uncommon in some nations, may catch on quicker than a gay one.

For the majority of the western English-speaking world it comes as a surprise to learn that Father Christmas/Santa Claus doesn’t deliver all the presents on his own in one night. He has help, and some helpers deliver his presents on different nights. Santa may be the supreme gift-bringer but other cultures have their own characters.

One of the earliest characters who brought Christmas gifts, characters who pre-date Father Christmas, are the ones who appear in the Bible nativity story. They are known today as the Three Kings, the Three Wise Men or the Three Magi. They bring Christmas gifts to a lot of traditional Catholic nations on 6th January. The current thinking about the Three Kings is that they were priests or shamans from eastern religions. The Bible doesn’t actually mention them as being kings, male, or that there were three of them. Popular medieval culture, both religious and secular, developed a whole back story for them and turned them into the Three Kings we are familiar with today.
As eastern priests around the start of the first century it is quite possible that one, or all, of the “Three Kings” were eunuch, transgender or intersex. Many priests of eastern beliefs did have some kind of gender variation and were seen as having a special link to their deities. Even at the time of the Nativity itself there were eunuch, transgender and intersex priests all around the Roman Empire. Perhaps it is time for society to stop calling them the Three Kings, because for all we know they could all have self-identified as female – Three Queens.

From the first Christmas gift-bringers we end with one of the most recent, or at least one of the most recently rediscovered. For this we revisit my article on Galicia and the earliest same-sex marriage in Spain.

In the traditional culture of Galicia is a Christmas character called El Apalpador. He is a character who is rapidly becoming my favourite Christmas character, and he seems to have developed out of the native Celtic heritage in the early medieval period. Like Santa he is a large man with a big bushy beard, though unlike Santa his beard is ginger in colour (not unlike my own before it turned white), an indication, perhaps, of his Celtic origin. The Celts of Ireland are famous for their red hair and Ireland is part of the old Celtic “empire”. El Apalpador lives in the woods and is dressed in appropriately rugged working clothes who, like Santa, carries a sack of presents. Traditionally, these presents were chestnuts which he left on Christmas Eve, or in some places on New Year’s Eve, after going around as the children slept to check they had not gone hungry that year. He left the chestnuts to ensure they had something to eat in the coming winter months. Similar characters from the same area of northern Spain and Portugal also exist. It would be interesting to find out if this gift-bringing has any connection to the legends of St. Nicholas and when each legend began to find out which came first – Apalpador or St Nick.

El Apalpador began to disappear during the Middle Ages and the Three Kings became the primary gift-bringer at Christmas. In parts of Galicia the traditions of El Apalpador lingered and in recent years has re-emerged as a popular Christmas character, thanks to the work of Galician nationalists who began actively promoting their culture’s heritage. This became very successful and people dress up as El Apalpador just as they do as Santa Claus. Which brings me to that article on same-sex marriage in Galicia.

That marriage was made widely known due to the research of Galician historian, politician and gay activist Carlos Cállon. He is a major figure in the re-discovery of Galician tradition and heritage. We’ll end with this image of Carlos dressed as El Apalpador at a Galician national celebration in 2012. And whoever brings your Christmas presents this year I hope he/she/they brings what you desire the most.

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