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.

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