Sunday, 5 December 2021

Advent 2: How Jesus Became a Bride

Last Sunday we learnt that the Reformation turned the Christ Child (Christkind) into a Christmas gift-bringer and merged with representations of angels to change gender into female. Germans took the female Christkind to America where she merged with another German gift-bringer, the Weihnachtsmann, to become Kris Kringle. By adopting the name of the Dutch colonial Sinterklaas he became our modern Santa Claus (in a children’s book published as Christmas 1821, meaning SANTA CLAUS IS 200 YEARS OLD THIS MONTH! Why aren’t people celebrating?).

The female Christkind merged with other Christmas characters who have been portrayed by both women and men. Let’s begin In Sweden with St. Lucy.

Lucy was a Christian saint martyred during the reign of the Roman emperor Diocletian at the beginning of the 3rd century. She is said to have secretly visited the Roman catacombs where Christian families were hiding from persecution to bring them food and drink. She lit her way with a candle, which later legends evolved into the crown of candles that St. Lucy is usually depicted wearing.

German missionaries in the 10th century introduced the Nordic lands to Christianity and its saints. St. Lucy’s Day is December 13th, which was around the same time as a traditional Swedish winter solstice celebration called Lussinatta, allegedly named after a pagan goddess called Lussi (of whom there is no evidence). What Lucy and Lussi have in common is the origin of their names from an ancient Indo-European word meaning “light”. Lussinatta is a celebration of light, and St. Lucy is venerated as a bringer of light. The connection between the two is obvious and the reason they became linked.

How St. Lucy became a Christmas gift-bringer took a long time. The Swedes adopted St. Nicholas as a Christmas gift-bringer when Christianity was introduced. As the Reformation spread Sweden adopted Lutheranism and dropped St. Nicholas and adopted the German female Christkind.

The earliest recorded processions on St. Lucy Day, called Luciatåg, took place in schools and universities (male-only at the time) in which a boy was chosen to head the procession as the Christkind or an angel wearing a crown of candles and a white robe. By the 17th century this character had become identified as St. Lucy yet was often still played by a boy. Female roles in church processions in medieval Europe are very rare, and female characters were usually played by men or boys (including the Virgin Mary).

Recent Luciatåg have also occasionally had boys playing St. Lucy, often leading to traditionalists objecting to the change of gender, unaware that it is part of the original tradition. In 2017 the “official” St. Lucy in the celebration in the Nordic Museum was portrayed by an openly gay operatic singer called Rickard Söderberg, a regular soloist in St. Lucy Day concerts. Below is a video of part of that concert.

The first record of St. Lucy as a Christmas gift-bringer appears in a journal written by a Lutheran minister in 1764. While he was working as a tutor in a castle in Västergötland the minister was startled to be awoken on St. Lucy’s morning by a girl dressed as a Christkind bringing him breakfast. This was a tradition in some rural areas, and the idea slowly spread across Sweden. The merging of the Christkind with St. Lucy is dated from this event.

The gift-bringing St. Lucy didn’t become a truly national tradition until the 20th century even though the Luciatåg and Lucy Day celebrations had become popular and widespread much earlier.

If you look at the video above again you’ll see the procession of teenagers carrying candles. The boys represent "star boys", a tradition dating back to early medieval church pageants. The girls represent bridesmaids, and give us a clue to the next gender-switching element of the Christkind.

The costumes of both St. Lucy and her bridesmaids are influenced by the lussebrud. This name came to be rendered as Lucy-bride though it is more accurately translated as Light-bride. She was a character in winter solstice celebrations like the Lussinatta. Going back into folk tradition in Europe we find other “brides” – May brides, Spring brides, Summer brides. Their presence provided playful gender reversal roles. Men played the brides, disguised and masked, who danced though the pageants dragging men and women out of the crowds to dance with them.

These traditional male brides link into the Christkind through modern Christmas gift-bringers in eastern and central Europe.

In the ethnic communities of the Sorbs (also called Wends and Lusatians) where German, Poland and the Czech Republic meet there is a bridal Christmas gift-bringer. In German she is called the Bescherkind, meaning “gift child”. In Sorbian she is called Dzěćetko, which means “child”. In Polish she is called Barborka. They are all basically the same character.

One of those characters who has a double gender identity. In the Czech Republic, the Sorbian Dzěćetko is called Dzieciątko (also called Ježíšek, Baby Jesus). The Czech Dzieciątko is depicted as the traditional boy Christ Child, while the Sorbian Dzěćetko is depicted as a female bride.

The Polish Barborka is not named after the Christ Child but St. Barbara. She is said to have lived at about the same time as St. Lucy and was also martyred. Skipping ahead to modern times, St. Barbara is a minor Christmas gift-bringer in Limburg in the Netherlands where she was once considered to be the wife of St Nicholas. As with St. Lucy, the Limburg St. Barbara was often played by a man in pre-modern times.

Barbara’s bridal connection comes in an old folk custom based on a legend that she had a cherry tree branch with her in her prison. On the morning that it blossomed Barbara was led away and beheaded. This legend merged with the old winter bride customs in which unmarried girls would break off small cherry branches on St. Barbara’s Day, December 4th, and hope that they will blossom by Christmas. If they did, it is a sign the girl will marry in the coming year. Similar customs are associated with other saints on other days of the year. Over time this custom became a tradition in which a local girls were selected to portray St. Barbara as a bride with her bridesmaids, travelling around their villages handing out nuts, sweets and biscuits. Thus the main bride became the Christmas gift-bringer Barborka.

This custom was modified in Sorbia where the Christkind was already established as a gift-bringer, and the Barborka merged with the Christkind to become the Bescherkind and Dzěćetko. The cherry branch custom and the Christmas gift-bringing traditions eventually separated, so that today where both customs exist the winter brides are still portrayed by girls while the Christmas gift-bringing brides are often portrayed by men with veiled faces. In the 20th century the Christmas brides have increasingly been portrayed by girls and women, and very often without the veils that were traditionally worn to his their identity.

Over 400 miles away in the Swiss town of Hallwil there is another isolated case of a female gift-bringing bride named after the male Christ Child – Wienachts-Chindli.

And there we have it – the male Christ Child of Eastern Europe merged with traditional winter solstice brides to become the modern female Christmas gift-bringers St. Lucy, Barborka, Bescherkind and Dzěćetko, characters played by both men and women.

Next Sunday, if I can get the design right, I’ll present a pictorial family tree of all the characters mentioned in this and the previous Advent article. Otherwise, I’ll be writing about more gender switching characters that are encountered during Christmas.

Sunday, 28 November 2021

Advent 1: How Jesus Became Santa

For most of this year I’ve been doing research for a board game based on the world’s many Christmas gift-bringers. There are almost 100 characters, past and present, who bring gifts throughout the Christmas season, starting with St. Martin (on November 10th) through to Sagaan Ubgen, a Russian-Mongolian “New Year Wizard” (whose gift day is based on a lunisolar calendar and can be on any date between January 24th and March 3rd).

Santa Claus has been slowly been killing off traditional regional gift-bringers. In a world that encourages diversity I think we should rediscover these disappearing characters. Thankfully, many ethnic and regional Santa alternatives have been emerging since the 1990s.

An area that has been growing, or should I say returning, to the lgbt community is gender diversity. I’ve written many articles on gender variance in history. This is reflected in seasonal gift-bringers such the Three Kings whom historians suggest may have been third-gender. Other gift-bringers have changed gender in the past, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. This Advent I’m looking at the gender-switching representations of Christmas gift-bringers, and I begin with the person after whom the Christian Church and Christmas get their names, Jesus Christ.

The evolution of many gift-bringers makes a labyrinth look like a straight road. The evolution of the baby Jesus into Santa Claus is an example. The baby Jesus is also called the Christ Child – Christkind or Christkindl in German-speaking nations. He didn’t become a Christmas gift-bringer until the 16th century when Martin Luther (1483-1546), founder of the Protestant Reformation, called for the abandonment of Catholicism and anything that hinted at it, including saints. St. Nicholas was the major Christmas gift-bringer across Europe at that time, delivering presents on his feast day of December 6th, as he still does in some countries. Luther encouraged the adoption of the Christkind as a Protestant gift-bringer. At the same time he suggested moving the gift day from December 6th to December 25th.

At first the German Protestant Christkind wasn’t represented in physical form as Santa Claus is today in countless shopping malls. How this changed, switching gender in the process, involved angels and the Nazis.

By the 18th century angels were regularly portrayed in art and churches as young girls or women. Around the same time the Christkind began to be portrayed not as a baby but a toddler or young androgynous infant and had acquired wings so that there was very little difference between the Christkind and a female angel. One of the earliest representations of the Christkind that I can find is the one illustrated below. It appeared in a children’s story and picture book first published in 1848 and is clearly female, though contemporary greetings cards still often depicted Christkind as a young boy.

In 1933 the Nazis decided to promote the city of Nuremberg as “the Treasure Chest of the Reich”. Nuremberg was famous for several things at the time – metal work, and its annual Christmas market. Since the 16th century Nuremberg had been producing angels made out of metal foil as Christmas decorations. They were very popular and were called Rauschgoldenengel – Golden Angels. For Christmas 1933 the Nazis chose a young actress to play a Golden Angel at the Nuremberg Christmas market. They called her the Christkind. This began a tradition of choosing a teenaged girl to portray the Nuremberg Christkind every two years that continues to this day. After World War II Nuremberg influenced other German cities and towns to appoint their own female Christkind.

Outside Germany, even in Catholic nations, the original male baby Christ Child also became the Christmas gift-bringer. He is known under various names, such as Gesù Bambino in Italy, El Niño Diós in South America, and Dzieciatko in Poland.

German migrants in the 18th century took their Christmas customs and female Christkind across the Atlantic.

The generally accepted theory is that Christkind (in its variant form of Christkindl) is the origin of the name Krishkinkle. This later changed to Kris Kringle, a name you probably associate with Santa Claus. How Kris Kringle became another name for Santa Claus is also because of German migrants.

In the mid 19th century a new Christmas gift-bringer emerged in Germany. Originally a character called Herr Winter appearing in a satirical magazine in 1842, he was a bearded old man in a hooded coat carrying a Christmas tree. The princely families of Germany adopted him as a non-religious alternative to the Christkind. They called him the Weihnachtsmann (Holy Night Man). German migrants took him to America, while the German-born British royal family introduced him into the UK where he merged with Father Christmas. If you ever see a 19th century Christmas card with a Father Christmas-like figure carrying a Christmas tree, that’s actually Weihnachtsmann, even if he labelled differently.

In America the secular Weihnachtsmann adopted the Christkind’s new American name, Kris Kringle, thus changing the gift-bringer’s gender back to male. In 1821 an anonymous illustrated poem about “Santeclaus” gave the Dutch colonial Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) a look similar to Weihnachtsmann-Kris Kringle. It was the famous illustrations of German immigrant Thomas Nast which modified the costume into a more recognisable one we associate with Santa Claus today. In this way Kris Kringle and Santa Claus merged into one. The current image of Santa was finally consolidated by another German immigrant, J. C. Leyendecker. He can be credited with ensuring that Santa Claus is depicted as the jolly fat man with a big white beard and red coat that later artists such as Norman Rockwell and the Coca Cola company copied, effectively finishing the popular practice of depicting Santa coats of other colours.

And there we have it. The Protestant Reformation turned the Christ Child into a Christmas gift-bringer. By merging with representations of angels the Christkind became female and travelled across the Atlantic to meet a fellow immigrant, Weihnachtsmann, to change gender back into Kris Kringle, and finally into Santa Claus. In effect, the Christkind, having been responsible for replacing St. Nicholas (whose name became Santa Claus), eventually merged back into him.

Next Sunday we’ll see how the female Christkind moved north, merged with a Mediterranean saint, and became a male bride.

Monday, 1 November 2021

November Birthdays

I will return on 28th November when I will begin the first of my regular pre-Christmas Advent series. This year I'l start by looking at some traditional gender-bending characters you might see at Christmas, then at some members of the lgbt community who have "made the Christmas gay".

Tuesday, 26 October 2021

William and John: Part 5) Robin Hood

 “Robin Hood and his Merry Men Entertaining Richard the Lionheart” by Daniel Maclise (1806-1870). This painting was always on display at Nottingham Castle in my time there.

When I worked at Nottingham Castle the last weekend in October was the annual Robin Hood Pageant. The grounds were filled with craftsmen, re-enactors and jousting contests. Sadly, the last pageant at the castle was in 2018. To remind me of those happy days I’ll continue telling the lives of Sir John Clanvowe and Sir William Neville. In the previous article Sir William had been appointed Constable of Nottingham Castle.

You can’t think about Nottingham Castle without thinking of Robin Hood. I believe Sir John Clanvowe wrote the ballad “The Geste of Robyn Hode”, printed posthumously between 1493 and 1534 (“geste” means “adventure”). It contains a remarkable amount of similarities to people, places and events in the lives of Sir John, Sir William, and William's wife Elizabeth le Waleys.

I wrote a small e-book called “Robin Hood – Out of the Greenwood: His Gay Origins Revealed” in which I go into much more detail about my theory. You can purchase it from Amazon here. There is only room for a very brief explanation of my theory on this blog.

The earliest reference to Robin Hood as a subject of ballads is in "Piers Plowman, a poem written around 1377. One line says: “But I know rhymes of Robin Hood and Randolf, Earl of Chester", indicating that “rhymes”, or ballads, about Robin Hood were well known. Unfortunately no-one wrote those ballads down, meaning everything we know about Robin Hood the outlaw hero was written after 1377. Before then, many legal documents record Robin’s as a common alias adopted by criminals. "Piers Plowman" is the first time Robin is associated to ballads.

The other man mentioned with Robin in "Piers Plowman" was a real person, Randolf de Blundeville, 6th Earl of Chester (b.1170). By 1216 Randolf was the greatest magnate in all England and virtual ruler of Cheshire. He also appears in another ballad, probably written in 1260, named after another folk hero, "Fulke le Fitz Waryn". Its plot bears more than a passing resemblance to "The Geste of Robyn Hode”. The synopsis of both are interchangeable and goes like this -

The outlaw hero has a right-hand man called John who waylays travellers in a forest and brings them back to the camp for a meal with the hero. They pay for the meal with their valuables. One of the hero’s companions assumes a false identity in the presence of the hero’s archenemy. The disguised companion lures the archenemy into the forest where the hero kills him. The king hears about the outlaw hero and comes to deal with him in person. The king’s men injure one of the hero’s companions who begs to be killed. The hero seeks refuge with a friendly knight. The king can’t find anyone willing to help him find the hero, but eventually he finds and pardons the outlaw.

Historians are convinced that “The Geste of Robyn Hode” (which I’ll just refer to as “The Geste” from now on) has some influence on “Fulke le Fitz Warine”. The real Fulk FitzWarin was a popular folk hero in the county where Sir John Clanvowe was born and raised. I believe he based “The Geste” on “Fulke le Fitz Waryn” and moved the action from his home county to Nottinghamshire.

Elizabeth le Waleys, the wife of Sir John’s partner Sir William Neville, (explained here) was step-niece to King Robert the Bruce of Scotland whose ancestor Prince David of Scotland was married to the sister of Randolf, Earl of Chester.

The few surviving ballads about Robin Hood date from the 1400s. Scholars of language and grammar use in “The Geste” suggest it was originally written before 1400. The same grammar is used in "Piers Plowman" and Sir John Clanvowe’s own poem "The Boke of Cupide" throughout, suggesting it was written in their lifetime. The language in "The Geste” is also consistent with Sir John's Lollard writing (explained here) - another clue linking Sir John to “The Geste”.

"The Geste" is composed of four interwoven plotlines. The first and last are set in Barnsdale Forest, Yorkshire. The plotlines in the middle takes place in a forest in Nottinghamshire. Sherwood is never mentioned, it is only implied by us today because it is the only forest in Nottinghamshire. A manuscript from around 1410 contains the line "Robin Hood in Sherwood stood." However, another document of 1429 says "Robin Hood in Barnsdale stood”. Both are used in a similar fashion to someone today saying “Is the Pope Catholic?” meaning something is blatantly obvious. This suggests the locations were interchangeable. There’s much rivalry today between Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire over which county Robin Hood comes from. The answer is, both. The forests were a short distance from each other, and the main road from London to York runs through both.

The author of “The Geste” shows a geographical knowledge of specific locations in both areas. Sir William Neville’s wife Elizabeth owned several manors in Barnsdale, and William himself was Constable of Nottingham Castle. Sir John Clanvowe would have known both areas well, and my theory is that he used this knowledge of both areas to write “The Geste”.

It’s difficult to imagine Robin Hood without King Richard the Lionheart and his brother, the evil Prince John. One read of "The Geste" and you are struck by the absence of both. The only king mentioned is Edward. Before 1400 there were only three kings called Edward – a father, son, and grandson - who reigned beween 1272 and 1377. But which King Edward is featured in “The Geste”?

Edward II was the most frequent to visit Nottingham and is the most widely accepted candidate by modern historians. One visit of note was in 1323-4 when he came in pursuit of outlaws whom he later pardons, as King Edward does in “The Geste”. One of those pardoned was Sir Richard le Waleys, Elizabeth le Waleys’ grandfather.

One interesting fact is the presence of a real man named Robin Hood in documents relating to this visit. Robin is one of Edward's porters, but about six months later he leaves the king's service. In "The Geste" Robin Hood joins the king's service after being pardoned and leaves a year later. Was this Robin Hood the man who was turned into an outlaw hero by ballad writers, and was the man whose “rhymes” became widely known by the time “Piers Plowman” was written in around 1377?

This is just an outline of some of my research. Historians of medieval literature agree that “The Geste” was written by a competent author, someone writing in the late 1300s whose work was considered worthy of saving and printing in the 1490s. None of the known English writers or poets of the late 1300s can be connected to “The Geste” in as many different ways as Sir John Clanvowe, either directly or through his partner Sir William Neville and William’s wife Elizabeth.

In the next part of “William and John“, published some time next year, I’ll continue to look at the Robin Hood connection and some of the famous characters in “The Geste” and reveal more family ties to Sir John, Sir William and Elizabeth, including Little John and the Sheriff of Nottingham.

Friday, 1 October 2021

October Birthdays

Welcome to the first of my lists of monthly birthdays. Every day of every month sees the anniversary of the birth of many lgbt people. In this series I list one person for each date. Those listed represent the widest range possible – nationality, ethnicity, occupation, gender identity, sexuality and era.

These birthdays come from my personal spreadsheets containing names and information of almost 25,000 lgbt people whose identities have been made public in the media or online.

Do you share your birthday with someone famous – or infamous? If you’re not happy sharing a birthday with someone infamous, don’t worry. Next year’s list will have a different set of names.

The list of November birthdays will appear on November 1st.

Saturday, 11 September 2021

Pause for 9/11

Most of us who were born before 2000 will remember what they were doing and where they were on 11th September 2001, 20 years ago today. I was at work, stationed in the main art gallery on the top floor of Nottingham Castle. It was time for my afternoon break but my colleague who was to take over from me for 20 minutes was 5 minutes late. I wasn’t too worried. Then he was 10 minutes late, and I was wondering where he was. Then he was 15 minutes late, and I radioed down to the office to ask where he was. At which point he arrived and told me that he had been watching the television in the staff room. Two planes had crashed into the World Trade Centre, he said. It didn’t sink in for a minute or two until I got to the staff room and saw for myself the tragedy unfolding on television.

There was a sombre feeling in the air for the rest of the day. About an hour later one of my ex-partners (let’s call him Sam) came to visit me in the gallery. He has just come off duty as a nurse and had been effected by the news, which was made more personal for him as only a month beforehand he and his then partner were standing on the top of the World Trade Centre. For reasons which don’t concern us, he and his partner had split up since then and Sam was feeling vulnerable. He asked me to keep him company that evening. I agreed and we couldn’t help but watch what was going on in New York for the rest of the night.

Many commemorative events are taking place around the world. There are too many names of those who lost their lives for us to remember individually. Many have family and friends to remember them, but some may not. The lgbt community lost just a tiny group of people compared to the full list of casualties. Below is a list of those known to us.

I list their names alone in alphabetical order of surname. Just by reading down the list you are contributing to the global commemoration and helping to keep their names alive, whether they are remembered by their loved ones or by no-one other than yourself.

Renee Barrett

Graham Berkeley

Mark Bingham

Pamela Boyce

David Charlebois

Eugene Clark

Jeffrey Collman

Luke Dudek

James Joe Ferguson

Carol Flyzik

Ronald Gamboa and his partner Dan Brandhorst

Sheila Hein

Mychal Judge

William Anthony Karnes

John Keohane

Andrew LaCorte

Michael Lepore

Patricia McAneney

Wesley Mercer

“Roxy Eddie” Ognibene

Seamus O’Neal

Catherine Smith

Waleska Martinez

and two people who are known to us by their first name only,