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.