Saturday 31 December 2022

Happy New Year, Baby

Now that we’ve come to the end of another year we are bombarded with babies! New Year babies, that is. There’s actually a gay connection between the New Year baby and Santa Claus, and it comes in the work of artist J. C. Leyendecker (1874-1951).

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.

Pope Alexander VI (1431-1503).
Maurice Béjart (1927-2007), French dancer and choreographer.
C. Jay Cox (b.1962), US film director and screenwriter.
Eloy de la Iglesia (1949-2006), Spanish film director.
E. M. Forster (1879-1970), UK author and novelist.
Lafe Fowler (1959-2002), Deputy Sheriff of San Francisco, USA.
J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972), Director of the FBI.
James Hormel (1933-2021), US Ambassador and philanthropist.
Michael Howells (1957-2018), UK film and tv production designer.
Magdalen Hsu-Li (b.1970), US singer-songwriter and activist.
Michael Kearns (b.1970), US actor and activist.
Frans Kellendonk (1951-1990), Dutch novelist.
Peter Lankhorst (b.1947), Member of the Dutch parliament.
Albert Mol (1917-2004), Dutch actor and dancer.
Joe Orton (1933-1967), UK playwright and author.
Akil Patterson (b.1983), former US athlete, youth advocate.
Katherine Philips (1631-1664), English poet.
Austin Scarlett (b.1983), US fashion designer.
Ellen Shub (1948-2019), US photographer.
Joey Stefano (1968-1994), US gay porn actor.
W. Scott Thompson (1942-2017), US political scientist.
Nahum Zenil (b.1947), Mexican artist.
Richard Zimler (b.1956), US historical novelist.

So, Happy Birthday to everyone whose birthday is on 1st January, and to everyone else Happy New Year.

Sunday 18 December 2022

Advent 4: A Queer Goat Becomes Santa

For the final Advent article this year I want to go back to last year and write again about gender-variant Christmas gift-bringers. It also links in to last week’s piece. It’s another case of the cultural evolution from one character into another, similar to the case last year then I traced the evolution from the Christ Child to Santa Claus. Today, let’s see how a goat evolved into Santa Claus.

We start in pre-Christian Europe, specifically the Germanic region where we encounter the habergeiss (there are variations in the spelling). The habergeiss is the Germanic name for an animal spirit that has many other names in other European cultures (more of that later).

The appearance of the habergeiss and its cultural relatives resembles a goat. In some parts of Germany the habergeiss is said to be feathered like a bird, or actually be a bird, or sometimes an old hag, but the goat is its most widespread form. In traditional festivals people would dress up in goat skins, or disguise themselves in a cloak and carry a goat’s skull, either real or fake, on a pole (an example is pictured below). In general terms, any person who puts on any disguise in these festivals is called a guiser. Dressing up for Trick or Treat or as Santa Claus in a pageant or store is guising, but fancy dress isn’t. A guiser becomes the character he/she portrays, while fancy dress is just putting on a costume.

A habergeiss in the Nikolospeil (Nicholas Play) of Bad Mitendorf, Germany. Photo from the collection of the Nikolomuseum Tauplitz.

As with so many words and names that come down to us from ancient times there is no complete record of the derivation or use of “habergeiss”, so there are several theories put forward as to its origin. Of particular significance for my purpose today, and the most accepted derivation, is that the name comes from the old German words “haber”, meaning a male billy goat, and “geis”, meaning a female nanny goat. In effect the habergeiss is a male-female goat. This is the bi-gender form in which it is still being represented today in some of the Twelfth Night (January 5th) processions across Germany and Austria.

But how does this bi-gender creature evolve into Santa? The answer lies in some of the many other local forms the habergeiss takes. Across central and northern Europe the guiser with a goat’s head appearing during Christmas festivals is widespread. In fact, Krampus may have evolved from one of these goat-headed creatures in the 17th century (Krampus didn’t exist before then, so it’s not pagan, so don’t believe anyone who says it is - it’s what academic folklorists call “fakelore”).

From the julbok in Finland to the gáraguá of Brazil (via Portugal colonists), and from the Romanian capra to Old Tup, the sheep-headed creature from my own region in the English Midlands, animal-headed guisers appear regularly during the Christmas season. I can’t find any definitive indication that any of these other creatures were bi-gender. I suspect this is only the case with the habergeiss because of its gender-based name, but there’s another possible derivation which I’ll come to later.

Let’s get back to the habergeiss and Santa Claus. For this we go back a couple of months to harvest time and the other possible derivation of the habergeiss’s name. In European folklore there were nature spirits called feldgeister (field-ghosts) and korndamonen (corn-demons). They took many forms, both animal and human, and one of these was the habergeiss. In this respect the “haber” part of its name is thought to come from the German word for “oat”, though etymologists generally dismiss this theory. However, the habergeiss became a prominent feldgiest.

The feldgeist were fertility spirits. Not “fertility” as is sexual procreation, but as abundant and fertile harvest. The habergeiss was a fledgeist who appeared at Christmas time to ensure that all the harvested grain had been threshed. If it hadn’t the habergeiss would wreak havoc, destroy the grain, and eat children.

I’ve just had a thought. If German colonists had created the USA instead of the British, would the habergeiss have been adopted as a central character at Thanksgiving? Would we see guisers draped in a bed sheets carrying a goat-heads of a stick leading Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade?

Going hand in hand with the feldgeist European culture also has the corn dollies, small figures made of woven corn stalks. In Scandinavia they have the most famous of these, the corn goat, which is a very popular Christmas decoration, the Yule Goat. Every year the Swedish town of Gälre has a gigantic straw goat. It has become famous for being burnt down almost every year.

This Scandinavian Yule Goat is most commonly referred to in Finland as the julbok, the Yule Buck, so we know that their version of the habergeiss is male. A word of warning. A lot of online sites and blogs perpetuate the fakelore that the julbok is connected to the Norse god Thor. It isn’t, and never has been.

A now rarely seen version of the julbok portrayed by guisers is the nuttipukki, literally “New Year goat” (as opposed to julbok, the “Yule goat”). This, too, seems to have been a nature spirit which turned up at Yule and the winter solstice to check the grain harvest has been fully threshed. One element more prominent in the nuttipukki than the habergeiss is that the guisers go from house to house to ask for food or money.

By the mid-20th century the julbok and the nuttipukki had virtually merged into one character, like Santa Claus and Father Christmas. In the merged form they became a new character under the name of Joulupukki, As explained last week, Joulupukki is what the Finns call their Christmas gift-bringer. They market Joulupukki internationally as Santa Claus, hence Santa Claus’s Village in Rovaniemi. I can’t emphasise my opinion often enough, that Santa Claus is not a name that should be given to Christmas gift-bringers who have clearly different origins, evolutionary paths, and appearances. Joulupukki is often portrayed and depicted as Santa Claus. Thankfully, occasionally you’ll see him in its accurate depiction as a human-goat character.

So there you have it, A bi-gender goat spirit, the German habergeiss, appeared at Christmas. Two equivalents in Finland were the julbok and nuttipukki who merged into Joulupukki, the character regarded as the Finnish Christmas gift-bringer, now mis-identified as Santa Claus.

Thankfully, the habergeiss, julbok and nuttipukki all survive in some areas of Germany and Finland. I hope this will continue and increase and that they will not be totally obliterated by Santa Claus and American cultural imperialism.

To end with, let me present my interpretation of Joulupukki. I wish you all have a very Merry Christmas. I encourage you to rediscover your own amazing regional gift-bringer, whether he/she has already visited you (e.g. St, Nicholas) or won’t arrive until New Year (e.g. the Three Kings), and find some place for them in your celebrations along side the ubiquitous Santa Claus.

Sunday 11 December 2022

Advent 3: A Home for Santa

Last Sunday we looked at the mystery surrounding the arrival of hundreds of letters to Santa Claus arriving at an address in New York. But we all know that Santa really lives at the North Pole. Or do we? Different countries have different ideas about where he lives. It reminds me of the long-running debate over where Robin Hood comes from – Nottinghamshire or Yorkshire.

The most widely accepted location for the home of Santa Claus, at least in Europe, is Finland. Actually, there are two, both in the most northerly province of Lapland that have been marketed as Santa’s official residence. But before that, a quick word about Santa’s name. In Finland the character which the English-speaking world has given the name Santa Claus doesn’t exist in Finland. In last year’s Advent series I expressed by belief that all the gift-bringing characters around the world should be recognised in their own right and not renamed or remodelled into the American Santa Claus. Santa Claus should not be the default name for these characters. They have their own name and have evolved differently with absolutely no connection to the USA. In Finland the Christmas gift-bringer is called Joulupukki, He evolved out of the traditional Yule Goat of Nordic tradition (more of that next Sunday). What we English call Santa’s Village is called Joulupukki’s Village in Finnish. There is a desire for diversity and recognition of identity in this world. I wish Europe would stop adopting US values and start to celebrate our own. It’s time we stopped the expansion of the US Empire before we lose our unique identities.

Unfortunately, Joulupukki’s Villlage is marketed on its website as Santa’s Village in English, so I reluctantly have to use the name Santa for the rest of this article.

The current principal Santa’s Village owes its existence to the rebuilding programme in Finland after World War II, and a specific desire by former First Lady of the USA, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962). There’s been discussion about Mrs. Roosevelt’s sexuality ever since it was first suggested in 1979 and that she could have been a lesbian or bisexual. It’s a discussion that can be gone into more detail at a later date. For today, let’s look at Eleanor’s link to Santa’s Village.

Hardly anywhere in Europe was not affected by World War II. Finland was no exception. It had to deal with threats from two sides – the Nazis from the south, and then from the Soviet Union from the east. In the end Finland joined the Allies. In the Lapland War of late 1944 the Nazis virtually destroyed the city of Rovaniemi. After the war the newly formed UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration decided to help rebuild Rovaniemi. Mrs. Roosevelt was a leading force within the Administration, and in 1950 she expressed a desire to visit the city to monitor the rebuilding progress. She also expressed a wish to cross the Arctic Circle.

The visit seems to have been arranged hastily, for the Governor of Lapland and the Mayor of Rovaniemi didn’t become aware of Eleanor’s visit until two weeks before her arrival. The two officials decided to have a new cabin built 100 metres south of the Arctic Circle for their distinguished guest to rest during her visit. The cabin was built within those two weeks.

The special visitor arrived on 11th June 1950. It was bright sunny day and the citizens of Rovaniemi turned out in force with a large civic party to welcome Eleanor Roosevelt. The visit was a huge success and the former First Lady got her wish to cross the Arctic Circle. To celebrate the event Eleanor sent a commemorative postcard to the then US President with a brand new Arctic Circle postmark.

Apart from helping to rebuild the city following the war Mrs. Roosevelt’s visit opened Rovaniemi’s eyes to the lucrative tourist trade. The cabin became the central attraction for thousands of visitors every year who wanted to emulate Eleanor’s trip across the Arctic Circle. Then they realised the potential of marketing the area as the home of Santa Claus/Joulupukki.

But Rovaniemi wasn’t the first Finnish location to claim to be the home of Santa. Back in 1927 a popular broadcaster called Markus Rautio said in one of his children’s radio programmes that Joulupukki (at that time the American Santa Claus hadn’t reached Finland) lived on Korvatunturi, a mountain and fell near the border with Russia. This soon became “traditional folklore”.

Meanwhile, as tourism to Rovaniemi increased so did the number of attractions. By the 1970s there was a whole new village around what is now called Roosevelt’s Cottage. By 1985 the village had become so popular that the Finnish tourist board decided to name it Joulupukki’s Village and promoted Juoulupukki as the same character as the western Santa Claus to attract more visitors.

Not to be outdone the Korvatunturi location began increasing its facilities and promotion. In 2000 they formed the Santa Claus Foundation to help disadvantaged children around the world with it headquarters in Korvatunturi. It still markets itself as a home of Joulupukki/Santa though concedes that Rovaniemi attracts the most visitors and markets itself as Santa’s workplace.

Today, both locations still receive thousands of visitors each year, and both receive letters addressed to Santa Claus and his many incarnations (St. Nicholas, Weihnachtsman, Père Noël, Father Christmas, etc.). The letters sent to Korvatunturi are forwarded to Rovaniemi where a larger operation of dealing with them has been developed, still with its own postmark.

Whether you believe in Santa Claus or any of his many other incarnations and counterparts or not, it can be said that without Eleanor Roosevelt’s desire to cross the Arctic Circle there may never have been so many people, young and old, who visit Santa’s home in Finland.

Sunday 4 December 2022

Advent 2: A Letter To Santa

Have you written your letter to Santa yet? Don’t laugh. Some people take it seriously. In fact, there are many places around the world which are recognised by international postal services as the place to send letters addressed to Santa.

When I was young my parents would write to a certain address every December (I can’t remember where, but I’m pretty sure it had something to do with the Royal Mail) and every year my siblings and I would receive individual letters from “Santa”.

There’s a famous film called “Miracle on 34th Street” in which the principal character claims to be the real Santa Claus. Spoilers – if you haven’t seen it, but plan to, skip to the next paragraph to avoid reading how the film ends. Despite the fact that the character wrongly uses the name Kris Kringle (a totally different character who evolved out of the Christkind, as I explained last year), Santa ends up in court, where the judge refuses to believe he is the real Santa. However, sacks full of letters addressed to Santa are delivered to the court by the US Postal Service and the judge rules that if a government body believes this to be the real Santa then so should he. The case is dismissed and they “all live happily ever after”, as they say.

But what would you do if you start getting hundreds of letters addressed to Santa Claus dropping through your letterbox? That’s the question a gay couple in New York City wanted to know in 2007 when letters to Santa arrived at their apartment.

To be fair, when Jim Glaub and his partner Dylan Parker moved into the apartment on West 22nd Street they were “warned” this would happen by the previous tenants, but they thought nothing of it as there were only a handful of letters arriving every year. Three years later, in 2010, that handful of letters grew into an avalanche of several hundred.

Naturally, the first thing to do was find out why all these letters were being sent to their address, but many hours of investigation produced no definitive answer for Jim and Dylan. What all the letters seemed to have in common, however, was that they were all sent from the same areas in New York and New Jersey. Jim and Dylan assumed that their address was placed on a community newsletter or notice board in error some years ago. What I find intriguing is that while Jim and Dylan have had a lot of publicity across all media over the years regarding these letters, no-one has come forward to claim any involvement in giving out their address. Nor were there any letters saying where they got Jim and Dylan’s address from in the first place.

Whatever the reason the bigger question was what to do with them? There were too many to ignore, and too many for Jim and Dylan to deal with or answer on their own, so they took their conundrum to the wider community.

At first Jim asked friends and work colleagues to help by selecting one letter and, hopefully, providing at least a reply for the writer or by donating the requested present. These requests were varied, from simple small gifts to a bed for one child who wrote in who had to sleep on the sofa.

But, even then, there were still too many letters left unanswered. Jim went online and set up a Facebook group and he was surprised by how many people wanted to help. There were people around the world offering to help with money or by answering letters and providing requested gifts.

Very soon Jim realised this was going to be a massive operation, so he formed a non-profit charity called “Miracle of 22nd Street” (where did he get the idea for the name, I wonder?!). It became an immediate success, and it is still in operation today (here’sthe website).

Even after Jim and Dylan moved to the UK when Jim got a job in London they ensured that the new tenant at West 22nd Street kept all the letters addressed to Santa, scanned them and emailed them to Jim to distribute of the website.

Jim has since returned to the US where he continues to organise Miracle on 22nd Street and its army of many international volunteer Santas.

Here’s just one of several videos on YouTube featuring Miracle on 22nd Street.