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.

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