Sunday 24 December 2023

Advent 4: Away in a Manger

Something short and sweet today, because it’s Christmas Eve and I’m sure most of us will be busy doing last-minute shopping and preparations for tomorrow. I know I do.

“Away in the manger” is one of the most popular Christmas carols in the English-speaking world. It sums up the atmosphere of a stable with a family celebrating the birth of their new born baby son. This year we celebrate 800 years of the Christmas crib scene, those models and representations of the birth of Jesus in the stable. They come in all shapes and sizes and are mainly set up in churches but they appear almost everywhere at this time of year.

I remember a special one from my childhood. It was a scene of the Nativity, made in brown plastic about 6 inches high. It was clockwork, and when you wound it up it played “Silent Night”, and a circle of plastic donkeys would revolve around the central scene of Many, Joseph and the baby Jesus. It got wound up a lot, and I’m surprised it lasted so many years. I wonder if my brother still has it.

The person we have to thank for coming up with the idea of having a scene of the Nativity to celebrate Christmas is a famous queer saint I wrote about earlier this year – St. Francis of Assisi.

Fortunately, I don’t need to write about today it because I did so several years ago in my Advent series of 2019. So, I’ll direct you there.

Thank you all for following me throughout 2023. I hope you have a very Merry Christmas, Happy Holiday, and all my seasonal best wishes to you all.

Sunday 17 December 2023

Advent 3: A Swedish Spirit Of Christmas

Most people are aware that the familiar character of Santa Claus got a big boost in popularity after the publication of the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas”, popularly known by its opening line “Twas the night before Christmas”. More than anything else, this poem cemented the idea that St. Nicholas and Santa Claus are the same character, even though they’re not.

Actually, this Christmas is special for two special reasons. You’ll have to wait until next Sunday for one reason, but the other is that this year is the 200th anniversary of the publication of “A Visit From St. Nicholas” on 23rd December 1823.

In the many nations where Santa Claus and St. Nicholas are not really part of their heritage, there are other gift-givers, as I’ve highlighted a few times in various past Advent series. One of these other gift-givers is the Scandinavian tomte (mentioned briefly last week in relation to modern St. Lucy Day processions).

The Christmas tomte evolved from ancient (probably pagan) house spirits, and every home had/has one. These spirits are known across Scandinavia under various alternative names – in Sweden the name is tomte, but they also use tomtenisse and jultomte (the latter literally means “Yule/Christmas tomte). They often appear like elves at Christmas celebrations helping out Santa or joining in the St. Lucy processions. Modern representations of the gift-giving version follow the 19th century image that resembles a garden gnome. (A big digression here, but the animator who drew the dwarves for the Disney classic “Snow White” was Swedish, so probably based them on the tomte).

Just as Santa Claus became more popular after the publication of “A Visit From St. Nicholas”, so the tomte became popular in Scandinavia through a poem. The poem was called “Tomten”, which is also known by its opening line. The poem was written by a gay folklorist and writer called Viktor Rydberg (1828-1895) and was first published in a weekly newspaper called “Ny Illustrrerad Tidning” (New Illustrated Newspaper) on 19th February 1881. The tomte was illustrated on the front cover (pictured above).

To say “Tomten” is a poem for children would not be entirely accurate, though it is now a family favourite in Sweden at Christmas time. In the poem the tomte is presented as a lone figure on a cold, snowy night, standing by a barn door. He shakes off thoughts about a difficult question he is pondering so he can do his rounds of the farmstead, checking that all doors are closed, and that the farm animals and equipment are safe and secure.

Lastly, he checks that the farm owner and his family are warm in their beds. As he does so he finds that the difficult question comes back into his mind. He has been looking after this family for many generations, but he wonders where all the older generations disappear to. He ponders on the passing of life.

The poem has been labelled an existential comment on the meaning of life and death and the passing of time. I’m sure we all think about how things change in our personal life, and the people who are no longer with us at Christmas. This could be why the adults who read it felt how it resonated with their own thoughts of loved ones missing at Christmas.

Despite the poem “Tomten” becoming such a Christmas favourite, it wasn’t set during that celebration. It was just set during winter. However, Rydberg has quite a strong association with Christmas apart from this poem. Back in 2018 I included him in my Advent series when I mentioned his support for the suggested year of Christ’s birth. Rydberg had already written a Christmas story the previous year called (in English) “Little Vigg’s Adventure on Christmas Eve”. I won’t go into “Little Vigg” today, but I’ll try to include it in next year’s Advent series.

Later editions of both “Little Vigg” and “Tomte” were illustrated by Jenny Nyström (1854-1940). She and Rydberg became close friends. Jenny’s illustrations of the tomte in this and many illustrations and greetings cards, helped to create a standard image of the tomte in much the same way that J. C. Leyendecker did for the modern Santa Claus.

Today, the tomte is everywhere in Sweden. As well as being incorporated into St. Lucy Day processions on 13th December, he appears several weeks before that, giving out presents on the day before Advent. This year that fell on 2nd December. This date is called Lilla Jul, or Little Christmas, and is celebrated mainly by Swedish-speaking Finns. On this day tomte leave little gifts for children.

The popularity of the tomte, in all its names and forms, has spread beyond Scandinavia. In the shops in the UK this year the shelves are stuffed full of “gonks” dressed as tomte as Christmas toys and decorations, replacing the elves that were everywhere last year.Between them, Viktor Rydberg and J. C. Leyendecker, with their tomte and Santa Claus, have made the yuletide gay, as the song goes, in a bigger way than it was before.

Sunday 10 December 2023

Advent 2: Lucy Boys

The participants in a Lucy procession

This coming Wednesday is the feast day of St. Lucy, or St. Lucia. In Scandinavia and parts of Italy and Croatia, this is the day on which children receive Christmas presents. If they’re really lucky they’ll have had presents on St. Nicholas’s Day (Dec. 6th) and will get more on Christmas Day itself.

St. Lucy’s Day is celebrated with church processions, family meals, and lots of tradition. In 2021 I looked briefly at the history of the Lucy processions from their origins in boys’ schools. In Scandinavia the original processions were led by a boy, originally portraying the Christkind (Christ Child), but this character evolved into St. Lucy, still played by a boy.

With this in mind it seems strange to historians to hear of several places in Scandinavia where controversy erupts over the portrayal of St. Lucy by boys in modern processions. This is invariably the result of the critics’ collective cultural amnesia and ignorance of its origins. Critics claim to be upholding tradition, when they probably mean that they don’t want their Lucy processions to be corrupted by being led by a boy in drag.

Who knows, perhaps before the internet and social media made it capable of discovering who remote or little villages chose to play their St. Lucy, there were lots of male St. Lucys (who I will refer to as Lucy Boys, as opposed to the Star Boys, which I’ll come to later). There was certainly an increase in the reporting of Lucy Boys after 2008.

There were three cases of protests against teenage Lucy Boys in Swedish schools that year which became prominent headlines. The boys who were the targets of those protests were (with the schools they attended): Freddy Karlberg of Södra School in Mötala, Johan Gustafsson of Erik Dahlberggsgymnasiet in Jönköping, and Nils Wiking Furberg of Lillerud high school.

All three teenagers were elected by their respective schoolmates to play St. Lucy in their school’s annual Lucy procession. However, in two cases the school principals objected to the election. They stated that it is traditional for a girl to be St. Lucy, since the saint herself was female. This was echoed by many parents of other pupils at those schools (no doubt angry that their daughter lost out on being St. Lucy to a boy).

I’m all in favour of tradition, but I also believe that there can be some room for change. We live in an era of greater diversity of representation. Diversity should not always have to create division. As I wrote above, St. Lucy was originally played by boys, so there’s no real alteration in tradition in this case. Again, collective cultural amnesia is the reason, and that can be harmful.

Early Lucy processions comprised of only St. Lucy and a group of girls dressed as “Lucy Brides”. Then Star Boys were introduced. In the last part of the 20th century the processions expanded to include such characters as gingerbread men and tomte (Scandinavian house spirits or elves, which I’ll talk about next Sunday).

In the cases of Freddy and Nils Wiking the school principals said that their decision was taken to protect the boys from abuse. This is quite valid, since they did receive abuse, and it is the responsibility of all teachers to protect their pupils. However, the principals stated that that had no personal objection to a male Lucy, if the procession was just confined to school staff and pupils. The processions were open to the public, with parents and local people present. The Lucy Boys might “upset the pensioners”, the principals also claimed.

There were three different outcomes to the three cases.

Freddy Karlberg was prevented from being a Lucy Boy because of his principal’s decision to not recognise his election. Several students boycotted the Lucy procession in protest.

Nils Wiking Furberg pulled out of the Lucy procession before it took place. His principal had actually backed down and was willing to let him be St. Lucy. What changed the boy’s mind was the amount of online abuse he received on social media.

Johan Gustafsson fared the best out of the three. He was allowed to be St. Lucy – with a twist. The school’s Lucy procession began very “traditionally” with a female Lucy, Veronica Ahlund. Halfway through the traditional St. Lucy’s carol, Veronica invited Johan to take her place. Johan had been playing a Star Boy. He removed his conical Star Boy hat and placed the candle-crown of St. Lucy on his head. Media reports say that the congregation cheered. Credit should also go to the school principal, Stefan Claason, for supporting Johan’s election from the start against much criticism.

Incidents of Lucy Boys being elected and denied their place in processions continue as does the debate over what is or is not considered traditional.

But what about those Star Boys I mentioned? In the Lucy processions they follow the Lucy Brides who walk behind St. Lucy. These boys wear white robes and tall conical hats. They usually also carry a star on a stick (hence Star Boys, obviously).

You’d think that there’s be nothing controversial about Star Boys, but you’d be wrong. In 2012 a 9-year-old girl in a Stockholm school wanted to be a Star Boy. Her school principal refused to let this happen, again citing tradition. Instead he girl was offered the role of a tomte, which the girl accepted.

In 2014, an 11-year-old girl from Skellafteå, high up on Sweden’s Baltic coastline, was told she couldn’t be a tomte in her Lucy procession because only boys can be a tomte. This was strange, because for the previous two or three years she had been one, and now she was told she couldn’t because she was a girl. The school principal’s reason? Again, the girl might scare pensioners who were coming to watch the procession. Happily, the principal changed her mind.

Who would have thought that something as seemingly innocent as a St. Lucy’s Day procession could generate so much gender controversy? Changing gender roles in traditional customs should not automatically be taken as an attack on that tradition. History teaches us that Christmastime has always had a large element of switching gender roles, even within Christian tradition (early portrayals of the Virgin Mary in church processions were usually played by young male clerics). True, most of it stems from the historic practice of not allowing women to take part (except that we must not forget girls played the male Christkind since the 17th century). What is important is that all participants and spectators in any traditional custom should be aware that it differs from previous observances, where cultural attitudes and even technology create change. That’s how the modern Christmas has evolved, and Christmas traditions have evolved too.

There are many other modern cases of switched gender roles at Christmas customs that have been accepted. In Spain, where the Three Kings are the dominant gift-bringers and have their own parades, some of the kings have been played by women – some with false beards. There have even been some female Santa Claus’s in the USA since the 1950s, also with beards, and three of them have been inducted into the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame. There are even drag Santas.

Whether you enjoy traditional Christmas parades and processions or not, let’s celebrate them all in their fabulous variety. After all, when you see a Santa or St. Lucy, you shouldn’t see the person playing that character. As some Christmas films often say about Santa – once you put on a Santa suit, you become Santa. This can be said of all benevolent Christmas characters, whether it’s Santa, St. Lucy, the Three Kings, the Christkind, or any of the hundreds of other Christmas characters there are around the world. It’s not cosplay. It’s not playing a historical character, even if it’s based on one. You become a manifestation of a concept that enhances both the secular and religious elements of an ever-evolving Christmas.

Sunday 3 December 2023

Advent 1: The First Christmas Card

It’s the start of Advent today, and it’s perilously close to Christmas and I haven’t thought about sending any Christmas cards yet. I prefer sending cards through the post because electronic means removes all physical connection between me and the receiver (and is just an excuse to be lazy and imply that I don’t care enough about my family and friends or think they’re worth the mild inconvenience of buying a card, writing it and posting it). It’s always better to know that the card you receive actually has the person’s DNA on it, don’t you think?

The official history of the Christmas card begins in 1843 when the first modern card was produced. But did you know that there is something that could be regarded as the first Christmas card that was sent in 1611? It also has a link to the lgbt+ community because the person who received it was our old gay friend King James I of Great Britain (1566-1625).

They may not have had our idea of a Christmas card in those days, but they exchanged presents, usually after Christmas Day, and more usually at New Year or the big Christmas feasting day of Twelfth Night (6th January).

The card King James received was actually a folded manuscript which may originally have been presented to him as a scroll. The centre of the manuscript contains the figure of a rose. This is significant, because it was sent and signed by Michael Maier (1568-1622), a German physician, alchemist, and advocate of a new religion called Rosicusianism (or Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross). The shape of the rose figure is made up of text in Latin forming a greeting to King James and an acrostic message of blessings.

Above the rose is a greeting, also in Latin. It says “A greeting on the birthday of the Sacred King, to the most worshipful and energetic lord and most eminent James, King of Great Britain and Ireland, and Defender of the true faith, with a gesture of joyful celebration of the Birthday of the Lord, in most joy and fortune, we enter into the new auspicious year 1612. Dedicated and consecrated with humble service and submission, from Michael Maier, German, Count Palatine, Doctor of Medicine and Philosophy, Knight and Poet Laureate.” If that’s doesn’t sound like a very fancy way of saying “Best wishes, King James, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, from Michael Maier”, I don’t know what is.

But why did Michael Maier send the message? And what is significant about the Rosicrucian symbolism?

What is Rosicrucianism anyway? It’s not so much a new religion as a new esoteric movement that combined aspects of several other religions. It included Christian mysticism, the Kabbala (a mixture of occultism, astrology, alchemy and bit of Christian and Jewish doctrine), and Hermeticism (the teachings of a legendary figure who was considered to be the Greek god Hermes merged with the Egyptian god Thoth). Rosicrucianism still exists today, but is more akin to a revival, like neo-paganism and modern wicca.

No-one knows when Michael Maier arrived in England, only that it was sometime during 1611. As far as the Christmas message is concerned, there’s no evidence that he delivered it in person, or that he was even still in England at the time. However, Maier was back in England during 1612 for a very special reason – the signing of the marriage settlement between King James’ daughter Princess Elizabeth to Prince Friedrich V, Elector Palatine of the Rhine (later the King and Queen of Bohemia). Maier presented a poem to King James in celebration. Perhaps his Christmas message was a diplomatic greeting during the marriage negotiations. This marriage was primarily political, made to cement an alliance between two Protestant nations, but there has been speculation about another reason for Maier’s presence, to cement a secret Rosicrucian alliance.

In the same year that Maier sent his Christmas message to King James, the monarch published a new version of the Bible, what is still called the King James Bible. Among many Rosicrucian historians there is a belief that this new Bible contains many coded Rosicrucian references, and that many of the men who put the Bible together were secretly Rosicrucian. This would provide Maier with a good reason for Rosicrucian elements to be put in his Christmas message. It all sounds very “da Vinci Code” to me – a lot of circumstantial evidence linked together with fanciful speculation.

Maier himself wrote that he had only heard about the Rosicrucians when he was in England. This makes it unlikely that he would put any secret symbolism in his message. So far, non-one has come up with any evidence that someone else wrote the message and used Maier as a courier. Why would he sign his own name? So it seems unlikely for him to be sent on a secret Rosicrucian mission to England as claimed. But, if he had heard about them early enough in 1611 and got to learn all their teachings and beliefs he may have put them in his message. Who knows?

King James didn’t adopt Rosicrucianism, which was probably a good thing bearing in mind that Rosicrucianism, even today, is quite homophobic. The last thing King James had on his mind was getting rid of his “toy boys” to please a German monarch.

Speaking of which, Michael Maier was involved in the Overbury Murder, the mysterious death of Sir Thomas Overbury in 1613. King James’ toy boy at the time, Sir Robert Carr, was found guilty of his murder. You can read a bit more about in this article I wrote a few years ago.

While Overbury was imprisoned in the Tower of London his health deteriorated. Several times he wrote to the Lieutenant of the Tower to permit Michael Maier to visit him as his physician. This was denied every time and Overbury died. His death was treated as natural, though several conspiracy theories circulated. It was two years later that evidence emerged that Overbury was murdered, and Sir Robert Carr was one of the people dragged into the conspiracy and found guilty of murder. To be honest, Carr probably was involved.

So, King James’s very first Christmas card has a lot more behind it than just a seasonal message of good cheer. There were secret codes and conspiracy theories. If you are still thinking of sending cards this year, yes, even an e-card, just take a look at the image and the greeting. You never know, there may be secret messages concealed in them.