Sunday 19 December 2021

Advent 4: Christmas Travesti

Over the past three Sundays I’ve presented some results of research into Christmas gift-bringers and characters. I’ve shown how some of them have changed gender over the centuries, and that some of them have often been played in traditional customs and pageants by someone of the opposite gender.

The terms “cross-dressing” and “drag” have become too associated with expressions of gender and sexual identity. Today I’ll be using an additional term. In the performing arts the term “travesti” is used to describe the portrayal of a character by a person of the opposite biological gender, regardless of whether that person is lgbt or not (to confuse matters even further, I’ll not be using the term “travesti” as used in South America for transgender people).

As with a lot of things, travesti roles began in ancient times. Here we have to make another distinction. Historians and academics often give the impression that ancient communities never did anything that didn’t involve religion and worship. The buzz word “pagan” appears like a virus, spreading through research and literature to explain everything we don’t have evidence for. What very few historians mention is that some traditional customs could have originated because people just wanted to have fun and let their hair down. Children role-played for fun just as they do today. Fun and faith went alongside each other, just like our modern Christmas. The Roman festival of Saturnalia, often erroneously quoted as being the origin of Christmas, is an example. So little is known about Saturnalia that no-one knows what they did except have wild parties. Evidence does suggest, however, that role reversal took place, but none to suggest it involved cross-dressing.

Some activities in religious festivals seeped into secular life, and vice versa. Today it is often impossible to say which effected the other the most. As far as cross-dressing in concerned, many pre-Christian religions had male priests who wore female masks in some ceremonies. Female masks have been found in Greek temples dating to 5,000 years ago. They were also used in Greek theatre in both comedies and tragedies.

The early Christian Church frowned upon cross-dressing, teaching that it was immoral and antisocial. It even became illegal to cross-dress in public in many nations. However, if the person (a man) was doing so as part of a theatrical performance, it was okay. This explains why the Church accepted travesti roles in religious ceremony. During the Middle Ages processions and portrayals of Biblical stories were popular. They were a way for the Church to inform the ordinary people who couldn’t read about Bible stories. This gave rise to the Passion plays of Easter and the Mystery plays of Christmas. In both of these plays female roles were played by men, even the role of the Virgin Mary.

During the Middle Ages communities began to organise their own little celebrations. The Mystery plays evolved into community “mumming” plays in which comedy, parody and travesty were common. Celebrations were also often adapted from local folk customs. In central Europe many of these customs took place in winter around Christmas or the winter solstice. Christian elements were added to these customs, and celebrations of the arrival of St. Nicholas to distribute gifts on December 6th was among them. St. Nicholas didn’t become associated with Christmas or gift-bringing until the 12th century, so we can be sure that these new customs don’t date before that. There’s no written evidence for most of them until the 19th century. Last week I gave a few examples of these customs in which St. Nicholas’s wife is played by a man – like the Wiefke of the Klaasohm and the Nikolowiebl of the Buttnmandllauf customs. These were acceptable to Church, State and society because they were regarded as performance, not a life-style choice.

In several countries from the 17th century there are records of groups of men who gathered and cross-dressed in private clubs – the Molly houses of the UK, for example, and various bars in the USA. Some of these men performed (sing, dance, recite, play an instrument) for the amusement of the others. This is where modern drag originated.

An event in 19th century London about a couple of men renowned for cross-dressing on stage hit the headlines. Their names were Ernest Boulton (1847-1904) and Frederick Park (1847-1881). They have a kind of Christmas connection - Park was baptised on 5th January (Twelfth Night) 1847, probably being born around New Year’s Day, and Boulton was born on 18th December 1847 (his birthday was yesterday).

They performed under the stage names of Stella Graham and Fanny Park and became quite famous. They even had publicity photographs taken of them in their drag costumes. Sadly, because cross-dressing in public in England was illegal at the time the pair were arrested outside the Strand Theatre in London in 1870. This was, however, not the first time that they had appeared in public dressed as women. Both had appeared in court on previous occasions relating to their cross-dressing. They were put on trial for outraging public decency and sodomy. The public followed its progress closely and the courtroom was often overcrowded.

Their first trial dealt with the charge of sodomy. The prosecution insisted that the fact that Boulton and Park were homosexual (a new word at the time) “proved” they were guilty. Many witnesses gave damning evidence against them, though the judge criticised the means by which some of that evidence was gathered. The jury took less than an hour to find Boulton and Park not guilty. This caused great rejoicing in the courtroom and Boulton fainted. A few days later they pleaded guilty to the charge of outraging public decency, thus negating a trial for that offence, and they were bound over to “keep the peace” (a sort of probation) for two years against a fine of 500 guineas. Both returned to the stage and toured in England and the USA, though not together, and not very often in drag.

When Boulton and Park were performing British theatre was experiencing its heyday. It was the period when the modern tradition of British Christmas pantomime (nothing to do with miming) acquired its present form. Some of that tradition came down through the medieval mummers plays. It also evolved out of the Italian “commedia dell’arte” tradition which featured characters like Harlequin, Columbine and Pierrot. Add a big influence from Victorian Music Hall (burlesque) and you get the pantomime that the UK loves to this day.

What people love about pantomime is the comedy, the songs, the spectacle, the slapstick, and above all, the stories and characters. A good traditional pantomime usually has two leading travesti roles, one played by men, the other by a woman. The pantomime dame is the most important. This is always a man in drag, usually a well-known comedian, appearing in ever-increasingly outrageous or elaborate costumes. The travesti dame role first appears way back in 1731 in “Dick Whittington”, my favourite pantomime. Dame roles became more frequent and popular in the final days of Music Hall. Another feature is that the dame has pockets full of sweets and she regularly throws them into the audience, though this has no connection to the Christmas gift-giving of the characters in traditional customs.

Perhaps because of its outrageousness and opportunity to slip in many sexual innuendos the dame character has been played by many gay actors – Sir Ian McKellen, Douglas Byng, John Inman, Wayne Sleep, Danny la Rue, Stanley Baxter, Christopher Biggins, Jack Tripp, Paul O’Grady, the list is endless. Sometimes the dame is the villain, like the two Ugly Sisters in Cinderella.

The other travesti role in pantomime is that of the Principal Boy, always played by a woman. This character is often the hero of the pantomime – Aladdin, Dick Whittington, Robin Hood, Peter Pan, Prince Charming, etc. In recent years, certainly since the 1960s, these roles have often been played by young men, usually the most famous pop star of the day.

So, there you have it. The pantomime dame is a descendant of the medieval Christmas processions and Mystery Plays in which the Virgin Mary was played by a man. The Mystery Plays evolved into mumming plays in which comedy and over-the-top characters helped to inspire the first British pantomimes and the dame.

Examples of travesti (left to right): Weifke (centre) in the Klaasohm custom; a publicity photo of Boulton (left) and Park (right); a typical British pantomime dame.

If we look at the history and development of Christmas and its many gift-bringers we find that there is no single influence or ancestor. What began as a Christian festival has lent its name to many celebrations, traditions and customs held during the Christmas season that have evolved over time. Just like our own family trees, many influences and many people and places have produced what we have today.

This is my final article of 2021. Thank you so much for being with me through this year, and I hope you’ll stay with me in 2022 when we’ll kick off with a list of January birthdays, and in mid-January look forward to the Beijing Winter Olympic and the newest list of lgbt Winter Olympians.

Have a very Merry Christmas and whatever festival and celebration you observe, and a Happy New Year.

Sunday 12 December 2021

Advent 3: Christmas Can Be a Bit of a Drag

The “family tree” of Christmas gift-bringers that I have been working on, and which I had hoped to present to you today, has proved so much of a tangled web that it is not ready. Perhaps next year?

If you’ve read the previous two Advent articles you’ll know just how much gender confusion there is around at Christmas. This is, as historians remind us, a hangover from non-Christian festivals from the past. I won’t label all of them as “pagan pre-Christian” because a lot of the traditions attributed to paganism were created relatively recently (e.g. the pagan Slavic gods have been proven to be 18th century inventions).

Gender reversal among traditional characters is a common element in many pre-modern customs, both religious and secular. The prominent feature is male-as-female transvestitism. There are, it should be emphasised, many, many traditional female Christmas gift-bringers and characters around the world. Although equally important as their male counterparts they have no gender-queer characteristic, except the ones I’ve mentioned in the previous two Sundays who were primarily transgender in essence – it is the character themselves that changed gender.

There are many regional, Christmas traditions and customs that include male-as-female cross-dressing. From my research I have been able to group them into three categories as follows.

1) The wife of St. Nicholas. We must distinguish St. Nicholas’s wife from the modern Mrs. Santa Claus as established in her present form by Katherine Lee Bates in 1889. The customs in the regions where St. Nicholas is given a wife have no connection to the American Santa Claus. In the article I wrote on Mrs.Claus several years ago I said that St. Nicholas wouldn’t have been given a wife because he was a Catholic bishop. Since then, I have been doing years of research and discovered current traditions where St. Nicholas has a wife in a supporting role. Here are some of them.

Last Sunday I mentioned that in Limburg, Belgium, an incarnation of the gift-bringer St. Barbara under the name of Sinte-Berb came to be regarded as St. Nicholas’s wife. There’s no indication, however, that she has ever been portrayed by a man in drag.

St. Nicholas’s wife appears most frequently in the Christmas customs of the Netherlands, Germany and eastern Europe, usually appearing on December 5th or 6th, St. Nicholas’s Eve and Day. In each case the character of St. Nicholas is portrayed as a medieval bishop similar to the Dutch Sinterklaas, and is most cases his wife is one of a group of companions, both demonic and good. The Nikoloweibl (Nicholas-wife) of the Buttnmandllauf custom of southern Bavaria is one of the good companions, often carrying a basket of sweets to give to children. This custom involves St. Nicholas, Nikiloweibl, an angel and demonic straw men parading through the local villages. They visit people’s homes, perform songs or play pranks, and receive gifts before moving on to the next house. At one time Nikoloweibl was always played by a young man. Today he is often played by a teenage boy in drag, but young women have been welcomed as the saintly wife in some areas since the 1950s. In other areas Nikoloweibl has been dropped in favour of a larger role for the angel, always played by a girl.

Perhaps the most unusual, not to say fun, drag wife of St. Nicholas is Wiefke in the Klaasohm celebrations on the Frisian island of Borkum. Klaasohm means “Uncle Claus” and occurs on December 5th. A group of seven young unmarried male villagers dress in costumes with exaggerated masks, each representing a caricature of St. Nicholas, hence the name. A boy dressed as Wiefke accompanies the senior Klaasohm as the group parade through the village, just like Nikolowiebl does in Bavaria. What distinguishes the Klaasohm custom from all the others is the climax to their parade. The villagers gather in the village square as the Klaasohm and Wiefke climb onto a brick pillar. What they do next is….. well, I’ll let you see for yourself. Here’s a video of the climax to the 2016 “Klaasohmfest”. Wiefke is the character dressed in red.

2) Witches and “perchten”. These are actually two different groups of characters but they share a lot of characteristics and are often interchangeable in some times and places. Perchten is a term used for both good and demonic characters of any gender in traditional winter customs. The term may be related to Frau Perchta, the name of a female deity from ancient folklore who evolved into a child-belly-slitting boogey-woman appearing on Twelfth Night (January 5th).

One perchten-type character based on someone we met last week is the Lucky or Luken of Bohemia and the modern Czech Republic. These female characters are an amalgamation of St. Lucy with St. Barbara, “ancestor” of the veiled Barborka brides played by men in Poland. Once again, tradition says that the Lucky should be played by a man. The Lucky, up to six in number, have different appearances depending on which part of central Europe they occur. Some have white-painted faces, some have long beaked masks. What they have in common are white robes and a broom with which they sweep their way through the streets and into houses. The earliest records of the Lucky, however, describe these women as belly-slitting boogey-women like Frau Perchta.

The sweeping of streets is also a frequent activity in other Christmas traditions. In the town of Rauris near Salzburg, Austria, you can encounter the Schnabelperchten. This is a group of men dressed as peasant women with beak masks and brooms like the Lucky. On Twelfth Night they sweep their way through the houses of the town making bird-like “caw caw” sounds.

Some of the female Christmas characters are more like traditional witches than human-bird hybrids. It is no surprise that these witch characters are perfect for men to portray. In the Trestern custom of Pinzgau, also in the Salzburg area, is a character called Hex. This is a witch who also sweeps her way through houses like her Schnabelperchten neighbour, which makes me think the two characters have a common origin. Nowadays the Hex is often played by someone wearing a Hallowe’en witch mask though originally it was man with witch make-up.

3) General female characterisations. This category includes human, non-demonic female characters. Perhaps the most famous of these is La Befana, one of the principal Christmas gift-bringers in Italy, and yet another character who carries a broom. She could be included in the previous category if it wasn’t for her origin. She is generally depicted as a stereotypical witch today, but originally La Befana (who first appears in the 1500s) was just an old woman. There isn’t much evidence to suggest that she was often played by a man in traditional celebrations, but a modern portrayal of her is worth a mention.

For the past few years on January 6th Venice has held a very special gondola race. It’s part of the Regatta della Befana. Dozens of gondoliers dress up as La Befana and race along the Grand Canal. The winner is the first to grab a sock dangling from the Rialto Bridge full of Christmas goodies. It sounds like great fun, certainly more fun than the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race in the UK.

There are quite a few female characters that are more “normal”. As well as Hex in the Pinzgau Trestern there is Lap and Lappin, a married couple, both played by men. Sadly, they have traditionally been played as a couple with intellectual disabilities, and Lappin is always portrayed as pregnant.

Among other female characters in traditional Christmas customs played by men are: Zusslweibl in the Klöpfeln custom from the Italian Alps, appearing on the three Thursdays before Christmas; Jumpfere the virgin in the Bärzeli-Buebe custom of the Hallwil in Switzerland (also home of the Wienachts-Chindli I mentioned last Sunday), appearing on January 2nd; and the Huttfroueli, an old woman who appears in several local customs in the Alps, appearing between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.

One final entry into this group is another Alpine character. In various Swiss towns on either New Year’s Eve or January 13th groups of men dress up as various characters, the Silvesterklaus. They go from house to house, singing, yodelling and wishing everyone a Happy New Year. Among the Silvesterklaus is a character played by men, the Schöne. The name means “beautiful”, and the men put on traditional female Swiss costumes and wear masks of a young woman’s face with a large, elaborate, and very heavy headdress.

But what about women dressing as male characters? While the majority of the cross-dressing roles have been men in drag there have been a few instances in modern times of women playing male roles. As mentioned above and last week, the instances of women playing the Christkind came about because the gender of the character itself changed from male to female. Instances of women playing male characters have increased in recent years, particularly as one of the most controversial Christmas character of our time, Zwarte Piet.

Discussing and analysing the racism attributed to Zwarte Piet, the black-faced companion of Sinterklaas, is outside the scope of this blog. What these accusations, modern interpretations of race that have no relation to the historical development of the character, have forced the Dutch to question Piet’s inclusion in Christmas festivities. In a lot of places a compromise has taken place. Instead of Piet appearing in black face he has begun to appear in red-face, green-face, blue-face, and any other colour. At the same time more women are playing Piet, and the traditional male name and gender of the character is generally retained. A similar change is beginning to occur in portrayals of the demonic Krampus. With the increase in the worldwide appeal of the character more women are beginning to dress up as a new character, a female Krampus, in traditional European festivals. Krampus has always been regarded as a male demon. Both the Krampus and Piet are instances of a traditional character evolving before our very eyes.

Who knows which of the Christmas characters we love today will remain the same in a hundred years. Who knows what influences will change them, and who knows which new characters will appear as a result. Will the current cultural climate of increasing recognition of gender diversity and racial representation have any effect?

But, let’s go back to antiquity next week and look at the history and development of the tradition of men playing women in festivals and theatre to see why this is so, and look at the version that is hugely popular in the UK at Christmas time.

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 Germany, 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 these characters 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 was a sign that 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 hide 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.