Sunday 22 December 2019

Deck the Halls: 4) Setting the Scene

The final Christmas decoration to bring to you on this last Sunday in Advent is the most symbolic for Christians like myself. It’s the Christmas Crib, also called the Nativity scene or presepio.

Some families have a set of Nativity figures that they have used for generations. These sets usually consist of small figures representing the Christ Child, Mary and Joseph, some shepherds and angels, and the Three Kings, with an assortment of sheep, donkeys and cows. These Nativity sets are then displayed in a model stable.

I have my own small Nativity set which I bring out every year, but it’s nothing compared to the huge presepio displays at the Vatican. Two years ago the Vatican presepio caused quite a lot of controversy, not least because it included a male nude figure but also because it was donated by an abbey with strong links to the lgbt community going back to 1256.

I’ll talk about the abbey in question first. It is the Territorial Abbey at Montevergine near Naples. It has always had a hint of the queer about it since the day it was founded in 1120. It is believed that the site of the abbey was once a temple to Cybele, a goddess whose priests were either transgender, intersex or eunuch. Well, why built a new abbey if there’s a perfectly good disused site already available?

A little after its foundation the abbey became the focus of an annual celebration of the miraculous salvation of a gay couple. This is still celebrated every year and includes a procession up the hill to the abbey by Christians and pilgrims with a special place for the Italian lgbt community, specifically transgender people and “femminielli” (men who do not identify as feminine or transgender). I’ll write more about the Cybele connection and the femminielli in February next year. For now, let’s return to the abbey’s gift of a Nativity scene to the Vatican.

This may sound strange, but the Vatican didn’t have a public presepio until 1982. In 2013, the first Christmas that Pope Francis was the Vatican’s incumbent, the presepio was created by the husband and wife team of Antonio Cantone and Marta Costibile. The display was titles “”Francis 1223 - Francis 2013”, a reference to the pope and to St. Francis of Assisi after whom the pope took his papal name. The added significance is that St. Francis of Assisi is said to have invented the presepio.

St. Francis of Assisi (c.1181-1226), famous for his love of animals and nature, may also have been in love with some young men as well. As with so many other personalities from the past it is misleading to think of them as “gay” in our modern sense. In the medieval period physical attraction between men, and of women to women, was a Christian virtue that did not include sexual intimacy. Love was good, sex was not.

Only four years after St. Francis’s death one of his followers wrote his biography. In it he wrote that before St. Francis embarked on a life of poverty there was a man in the town of Assisi whom Francis loved more than any other person. This man isn’t named but recent research by Franciscan scholar Kevin Elphick suggests he may be a known companion of St. Francis called Brother Elias of Cortona.

Throughout Francis’s life of poverty he switched gender labels a lot. He used male and female pronouns where we would use the opposite. He accepted for himself the name Lady of Poverty, which he received from a vision of an all-female Holy Trinity – not the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but the Mother, Daughter and Holy Spirit. The medieval Catholic Church didn’t object to such gender-switching labels. That only began to happen after the Reformation of the 16th century.

There are several other lgbt and queer associations with St. Francis which are too numerous to go into detail, including his unofficial patronage of AIDS and HIV patients and his manifestation as a transgender African deity. Today I want to concentrate on the history of the presepio.

It is believed that St. Francis created the first presepio in 1223 in Greccio, a hilltown in central Italy. It was a static living scene with each Nativity character being played by real people. It was a novel idea and caught on very quickly. Over the decades sculptured figures replaced the actors, and then the whole presepio was scaled down so that it could be mounted on a table or inside a small church.

Going back to the life-size Vatican presepio of 2017 we can link it to the 2013 Francis presepio because they were both designed and made by Antonio Cantone and Marta Costibile. The couple produce religious statuettes in a traditional Neapolitan style. Their life-size terracotta figures for the controversial 2017 presepio were also based on traditional themes. However, what most people seemed only to notice was the figure of a naked muscular man.

Cantone and Costabile based their presepio on the traditional Seven Christian Corporal Acts of Mercy as well as the Nativity. One of these acts is “to clothe the naked” and the presepio for the Vatican shows another man handing the naked man some cloth to wear. Social media flew into a furore. Some people declared it was a deliberate attempt by the abbey of Montevergine to promote homosexuality! The presepio is shown in the YouTube video below and you can’t miss the figure in question.
Members of the Italian lgbt activist group Arcigay supported the presepio. They emphasised the fact that the Pope and the Vatican had accepted a presepio from an abbey with known strong links to the lgbt community and saw it as a symbol of inclusion and integration, something that extremist churches in the USA don’t.

With the abbey having such a strong lgbt background it is going to form the basis of an article in February in celebration of its annual procession of the femminielli and pilgrims.

That’s it for this year. I’ll be back on New Year’s Day 2020 with the first in my new “80 Gays” series, “More 80 Gays Around the World”. Until then, however you celebrate these few weeks at the turn of the year, I hope you have a great time and see you in 2020.

Sunday 15 December 2019

Deck the Halls: 3) Cutting Out Christmas

Here’s a more personal Christmas decoration that is not too late to make. It’s a Christmas Heart.

This is a popular decoration in Denmark and northern Germany, and it is a famous gay Danish writer who made these hearts particularly popular in the 19th century. His name is Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875). He wrote many children’s stories that were well-loved in his lifetime, and still are today. The most famous of his stories is “The Little Mermaid”. Eight years ago I wrote about Hans Christian Andersen and his sexuality in my first Christmas series.

No-one is sure where and when the idea of making paper hearts for Christmas began. It may be just a local Danish tradition lost in the mists of time. It is probable that the technique of making the pleated hearts was influenced by a much older European-wide medieval tradition of making small figures out of straw or wicker.

The oldest surviving Christmas heart is one made by Hans Christian Andersen himself in 1860. It is housed in his museum in Odessa, Denmark. It’s unlikely that Hans invented the heart, and his example may not have been his first, nor used as a Christmas decoration. But it used the same technique to make as those hearts that have become popular on Christmas trees today.

If you’d like to make some Christmas hearts for your tree, or make one to give to a loved one, check out this video.
Andersen was a huge celebrity in Denmark, on a par with Charles Dickens in the UK. Its no wonder his Christmas paper hearts were popular among his many fans. But his hearts were a small part of an even bigger interest he had in another form of papercraft, psaligraphy.

Psaligraphy is the fancy name for paper cutting. Hans Christian Andersen always carried a pair of scissors with him, and whenever children stopped him and asked him to tell them a story he would be snipping away at a piece of paper. At the end of the tale he would hold up the paper to reveal a cut-out design which illustrated a part of his story.

Again, Andersen didn’t invent this art form. It had been known in ancient China but didn’t exist in Europe until the 1600s. Portrait silhouettes were very popular in the 170s and 1800s.

A lot of Andersen’s surviving psaligraphs – paper cuttings – went on display this time last year in a museum in Bremen. Andersen wrote in 1878 “Paper cutting is the prelude to writing”. He gave away most of his psaligraphs so it’s fortunate that there were enough to form an exhibition. There are some examples of Andersen’s various papercraft.

Having worked in museums and art galleries since from 1988 to 2005 I know how delicate pieces of papercraft such as those Andersen produced needed precise atmospheric monitoring. Temperature, humidity and even light levels needed to be just right to prevent deterioration.

For seven years I worked at the Nottingham Castle museum and art gallery. One of the big exhibitions I worked on was the major Andy Warhol exhibition in 2002. Warhol himself was fascinated by Hans Christian Andersen’s various papercraft. One of Warhol’s last pieces of work was inspired by Andersen’s psaligraphy and silhouettes.

In many department stores at Christmas you can see a variation of psaligraphy in the many tree decorations made of wooden silhouettes and cut-outs. The same cut-out technique was used to form the Christmas ident of one of the UK television channels in recent years.

So, maybe you could get out a pair of scissors and paper and have a go at cutting out some Christmas designs for yourself. Even paper snowflakes will brighten up any display. Or you can try your hand a making a traditional Danish paper heart like Hans Christian Andersen did.

Next Sunday, the last Advent Sunday before Christmas, we look at perhaps the most significant type of Christmas decoration in Christianity, the Nativity scene or presepio. We’ll learn of the controversy which arose when the official Vatican presepio was donated by an abbey that has been holding an annual lgbt procession since 1256 – the world’s oldest and longest continuously held Pride march?

Sunday 8 December 2019

Deck the Halls: 2) Let There Be Lights

The Christmas decoration we’re going to look at on this second Sunday in Advent are the Christmas lights, and one set of lights in particular.

Lights were originally just decorations for the Christmas tree but over the past 100 years they have spread to almost any surface that can be found.

There’s often rivalry between neighbours who try to out-do each other with Christmas light displays. I suppose it’s inevitable that television companies would create contests and award prizes to the best Christmas light display. They seem to turn everything into a conflict. In 2013 the ABC network in the USA created what is now called “The Great Christmas Light Fight” (conflict is even part of the title!). There have been seven series so far plus a Hallowe’en special.

Season 5, which aired in 2017, concluded with an episode called “Season Finale” on 18th December. One of the families selected to compete was a gay couple.

Jim Cheslin and Alex Laneaux have been decorating their home in Longwood, Florida, in elaborate Christmas light displays since 2006. They were inspired by a visit they made to Walt Disney World near Orlando the previous Christmas. (Incidentally, they both competed in the 2006 Gay Games in Chicago - Jim in bowling and Alex in tennis.)

Since 1995 Walt Disney World had hosted an extravagant Christmas light display owned by the Osborne family of Little Rock in Arkansas. The display contained several million individual lights and decorated the Osborne family home and property since 1986. The whole display was remounted on Residential Street, part of the Walt Disney studio back-lot which was included in the regular tram tour. It became known as The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights.

Inspired by this and other displays at Walt Disney World Jim Chesney and Alex Laneaux decided to create their own festive light display for the following year at their own home. It was an instant hit with their neighbourhood. Gradually, over the years, the display expanded so that by Christmas 2014 it included over 53,000 lights and 13,750 feet of extension cable. The lights were choreographed to a soundtrack of Christmas songs.

Neighbours had suggested premiering the display on Thanksgiving in the last week in November every year. This meant that Jim and Alex have to start work in September.

Needless to say their light display caught the attention of local media. In 2015 it caught the attention of “The Great Christmas Light Fight”. Janelle Eagle, the Associate Producer for the 2016 season, contacted Jim and Alex with a view to them auditioning for the show. They didn’t make it that year, but Janelle encouraged them to reapply for the 2017 season.

Once accepted for the show Jim Cheslin and Alex Laneaux had to have their display ready long before Thanksgiving. Filming of their “The Great Christmas Light Fight” episode had to be done in October for a December transmission.

Spurred on by the chance to compete with three other families from around the USA to produce their best ever light display Jim and Alex used 100,000 LED lights to create their own homage to the Osbourne Family Spectacle that had inspired them 12 years earlier. Sadly, they didn’t win the contest but Jim agreed with the choice of the winning display.

These days it’s rare for any television reality series not to have some openly lgbt input somewhere. With the “Great Christmas Light Fight” this comes with two major contributions, the aforementioned Janelle Eagle, and the host and judge in the first 5 seasons Michael Maloney.

Janelle Eagle is an ex-fundraiser for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Deformation (GLAAD) and an lgbt activist. In July 2016 she married her partner Jenna Robin.

Michael Moloney is an interior designer and has appeared on other shows, most prominently on “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition”. One of the episodes of the 2011 season centred around the Walker family, whose 11-year-old son committed suicide due to bullying he received because of his sexuality.

Of course, you don’t have to use thousands of lights to celebrate Christmas. And you don’t have to outdo anyone else. To coin a phrase “its quality that counts, not quantity”.

To finish with, here is a YouTube video of the Jim Cheslin and Alex Laneaux light display from 2016.

Next Sunday we’ll look at a more intimate Christmas decoration, something personal you can give to a loved one, and its links to Danish fairy tales.

Sunday 1 December 2019

Deck the Halls: 1) Three Queer Kings

Today is the first Sunday in Advent, the traditional time of year when we start thinking about Christmas and putting up decorations.

Like me you’ve probably got all or most of your decorations ready. The English tradition is to put them up during Advent, and the last thing to do is to put a star on top of the Christmas tree after sunset on Christmas Eve (NEVER put the star on the tree before then). One tradition that has been forgotten is that you leave the decoration up until February 2nd, the actual last day of Christmas.

On each Sunday this Advent I’m writing about some Christmas decorations and their queer connections. Perhaps you’ll be able to get some last minute ideas, or some for next year if you’ve got this year sorted out.

Rather than put up the same decorations every year I try to have a different theme. In a previous home in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, I chose the Three Kings as my theme for Christmas 1996. Whether you call them the Three Kings, the Three Wise Men of the Three Magi these characters have become so entrenched in Christian lore (not to be confused with Christian doctrine) that they are the world’s second most popular Christmas gift-bringers, bringing gifts for all or most of the Hispanic world.

The current thinking about the Three Kings strips away all the medieval elaborations and accepts that they were eastern priests, astrologers of shamen. Being referred to a “wise” in some versions of the nativity story suggests they held honoured positions in their own communities.

In more recent years research into ancient religions and beliefs has revealed that many of the pagan faiths had priests who were either eunuch, transgender or intersex. This has led to the theory that the Three Kings were also gender variant. Another theory is that all of the Three Kings were women. This has caused some controversy among conservative Christians, as you can imagine.

For further discussion on the gender of the Three Kings/Wise Men/Magi/Queens I direct you to the following article, one of several on the internet discussing the subject: “Epiphany: Three Kings or Three Queens?”.

Back to the Christmas decorations. In 1996 I decided to use three corners of my living room to create something to represent each of the traditional Three Kings. But first I had to identify them and decide what objects and symbols I would to use to represent them.

The names were easy, they are well known – Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar. I was a keen heraldry buff even in 1996 so I knew that medieval heralds had invented coats of arms for them, so I made shields out of cardboard. Unfortunately, the medieval representations and sources were never consistent so in the end I had to decide which coat of arms I’d use. The same went for objects to represent the three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. To add to the atmosphere of the displays I chose a different incense to go with each King. Finally, I chose a main colour for each of them. My final choice was as follows:

Now I was ready to construct a corner display for each King. I was lucky, I lived in an old house that had a picture rail around the top of the room so I had something I could hang the decorations from.

I won’t go into detail about how I constructed the displays because it would take too long. Basically, I began with three cardboard boxes and turned them into triangular shelves that fit snuggly into the corners. I then suspended the shelves from the picture rail with string (you can see some string showing in the red Balthazar display). I realised that the shelves wouldn’t hold much weight so I made sure everything I put on it was a light as possible. On top of each corner display I made royal eastern headgear under which to suspended the coats of arms.

The finished displays are shown below.

On the shelves I put holders for the incense sticks and objects to represent the Kings’ gifts. Gold was represented by a cardboard gold bar. Frankincense was represented by a small oriental-looking bottle. Myrrh was represented by a small cardboard treasure chest. These are shown in close-up below.

With a bit of evergreen decoration and some tinsel the displays were complete. I still consider this to be one of my favourite Christmas ideas. I’d probably do some things differently, but in 1996 it was perfect.

I’m sure you’ll have you own ideas about how to use a Three Kings theme.

Next Sunday I’ll look at another popular Christmas decoration. No Christmas would be complete without them – fairy lights.