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
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
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.