A couple of years ago I wrote about how J. C. Leyendecker was responsible for making our modern image of Santa Claus the one that prevailed over the many others that were around at the beginning of the 20th century. As a leading cover illustrator for the “Saturday Evening Post” he also helped to popularise the New Year baby.
Leyendecker didn’t invent the New Year baby. In fact, its roots seem to go back to ancient Greece and another queer character I’ve written about a few times on this blog – the Greek god Dionysos.
There’s no real continuity of use to prove that Dionysos was the original New Year baby. Other cultures and faiths have similar New Year traditions associated with the new-born that developed independently. In the end, all these various traditions may simply be a universal concept in humanity, simply associating babies with rebirth of the year or seasons.
The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus wrote that Dionysos had two forms, an ancient one and a later one. Consequently, there are different versions of his birth and childhood. The ancient Dionysos was the son of Zeus and either Persephone or Demeter. In this form he was also called Zagreus, and it was in this form that he distracted Prometheus from his creation of humanity. You can read what consequences this had on humanity’s gender here. This Dionysos claimed the throne of Zeus and the Titans tore him to pieces. Zeus then took the dismembered body and put it into a drink which he gave to Princess Semele of Thebes. Semele became pregnant and consequently she gave birth to the second Dionysos.
In this second incarnation Dionysos was raised as a girl to hide him from Hera, Zeus’s wife. As a result Dionysos was often depicted in adulthood dressed as a woman. Members of the cult which developed around him included the Pleiades, the patrons of drag queens.
So, the death and rebirth of Dionysos became symbolic of the death of the Old Year and birth of the New Year. Greek towns would parade a new-born baby through the streets every New Year in commemoration of Dionysos. Whether this is the direct reason why the New Year Baby is so popular today is unknowable. As I said earlier, it may be common throughout history. It is an obvious concept, after all. Anyone, anywhere, anytime could have thought about it. One particularly unsettling aspect of these Greek New Year babies, however, is the common practice in Greek culture of abandoning any physically deformed new born baby to die.
The 19th century seems to have been the period when the New Year Baby acquired its current popularity. Before then it appeared sporadically. With the invention of Christmas cards in 1842 the baby became more visible. The figure of Old father Time was already more well-known in the UK, so it was a natural process of pairing him up with the New Year Baby on Christmas and New Year greetings cards.
In the US the New Year Baby became more popular through the “The Saturday Evening Post”. This is solely down to the work of J. C. Leyendecker. He was the most prolific front cover artist for the Post and was always trying to find ways to celebrate various special occasions, hence the Santa we know today. In 1906 Leyendecker designed the first of 37 consecutive New Year covers, all featuring a baby or winged cherub. You can see here an article which shows all of them in sequence. At the top is his cover for 1923, this New Year’s centenary cover.
One of the fashionable traditions which occurs from place to place is the celebration of the first baby to be born after the chimes of midnight on New Year’s Day (particularly in places where January 1st is New Year’s Day). Needless to say, there are many of them around the world, and the lgbtq community has quite a few. So, to end with, here’s a selection of lgbtq New Year babies.
So, Happy Birthday to everyone whose birthday is on 1st January, and to everyone else Happy New Year.