The history of Christmas celebrations includes many queer connections.
It is a season that is loathed as much as it is loved, thanks to our bizarre worship of a winter solstice festival in the middle of summer.
Not to mention the whole thing is based on a purported series of events (that stretch credulity) that gave rise to a dominant world religion that hasn’t been kind to the diverse gender and sexuality community on the whole.
Why on earth is there an article devoted to queering a celebration that seems opposed to what the community is about?
Well, there is a real person at the heart of what we now celebrate as Christmas. An actual human being that can be named, attested to and left a legacy: Santa Claus.
“Ho, ho, ho”, you say…. this is a joke, right? Well, no. Santa Claus is very real. He began life 1753 years ago as Nicolas of Myra (a Greek city in what is now western Turkey).
Raised a Christian in a time when it was pretty hairy to be Bible-believing – Emperor Diocletian and his chums were very good at dispatching people who didn’t conform. By the time Christianity was tolerated and then favoured by Emperor Constantine, Nicolas was a bishop and well known for being generous with gifts to those less fortunate – tying up gold coins in bundles and tossing them in through the window of young girls whose families were so poor they couldn’t afford dowries for them.
The only other avenue was prostitution – and Nicolas didn’t like that idea, so he “helped out”. The secret late-night visitor placing gifts in stockings to save young maidens from a less than honourable life morphed into the gift-giving orgy of today.
So, where is the “queerness” in all of this? It is in something the queer community is very good at doing – pageantry. The blending of colour, tinsel, sparkle and joy. When Nicolas died in 343CE his memory gradually blended into Saint Nicholas. The anniversary of his death, December 6, saw the development of traditions that are pretty queer when you look at them objectively.
A man who appears to have been single, generous and feisty (there is an uncorroborated story of him slapping another man at a church council) and in his afterlife becomes a gift-giving, white-bearded old man.
This is thanks to a Dutch tradition of celebrating Sinterklaas on December 6 with small gifts for well-behaved children and lumps of coal for the naughty ones (and a one-way trip to Spain with him and his manservant Zwarte Piet – however the less said about that, the better…)
More queer connections
Into this, mix the medieval English tradition of electing a boy-bishop on Saint Nicholas who held the office for a whole month until the great feast of the Epiphany (Twelfth Night). This was a time of high fun and has its roots in probably the queerest part of Christmas, the old Roman festival of Saturnalia – “the world turned upside down”.
Culminating on December 23, when the sun was at its most distant and ‘standing still” (the meaning of the word Solstice), a time when masters served their most valued slaves, little work was done, lots of feasting, drinking, play-acting – and lots of other indoor pursuits as well.
Throughout the medieval period the replacement for Saturnalia was The Feast of Fools, primarily from Christmas Day to Twelfth Night. Entertainment was presided over by the Lord of Misrule and was a strong part of a community’s ability to relax, throw off the strictures of the year gone by and for a little while be daring and enjoy life.
It served a real purpose – a much-needed “pressure valve release”. The queerness of all this is undeniable – poking fun at those who belittle and rule those underneath them, finding enjoyment in eating and drinking, dressing up, telling tales, and playing games.
Check out the Christmastide game that even so-called prudish Victorian-era folk loved – Hot Cockles – no, it’s not what you are thinking… one person kneeling before another who holds their head in their lap so they can’t see who is behind them, and people line up to smack the kneeler’s behind.
The object of the game is to guess who just had a go at your tush – if you got it right, you swapped places! (Boot Co might be interested in reviving that for a Christmas or New Year event?)
The essence of a queer Christmas is there in the history of how it has been celebrated. Yuletide IS gay, it always has been – now, who’s up for a game of Hot Cockles?
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