What Do the Histories of Sexuality and Christmas Have In Common? Surprise! A Lot More Than You Think

A Santa Christmas ornament in front of blurred Christmas lights
Dillon Thompson 

With Christmas around the corner, most of us are currently preoccupied with finding the perfect gift for loved ones, pre-ordering Christmas dishes, and trying to send out last-minute cards to extended family members on the other side of the world. During this fast-paced and  (let’s be honest) competitive period, a discussion on the similarities between histories of sexuality and Christmas seems rather out of the blue. Yet, as Impact’s Dillon Thompson explores, these themes have far more in common than we may first assume. So for now, close the Amazon browser, and immerse yourself in Thompson’s analysis of festivities and desire.

A fashionable school of thought exists within the history of sexuality which asserts that the concept ‘of sexuality’ did not exist until the Victorians. Foucault (1990) argued in The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, that sexuality did not really exist until this specific point in history, controversially asserting that Victorianism produced the definition of sexuality which we understand today. Sexuality, for Foucault, was a social construct. This is, of course, a simplification of a very complicated narrative, and so, if you, my dear reader, find yourself interested in this camp of thought, I would suggest you read some of the extensive literature produced by this social constructionist on the history of sexuality.

The beloved personification of Father Christmas is now intrinsic to contemporary versions of the holiday

Where might Christmas come into all of this? The beloved personification of Father Christmas is now intrinsic to contemporary versions of the holiday. It was not until the Victorians, though, that Father Christmas began to be defined in a way which is familiar to us. We can talk similarly of sexuality: different notions have existed for centuries, millennia even, but not until the Victorians did the concept begin to resemble that of today. Iterations of Father Christmas (and I would controversially assert, sexuality) existed long before the Victorians.  People in the premodern world understood sexual behaviour in terms of being normative or non-normative. If so, does this not, in some way, constitute a premodern conception of sexuality? Simply calling something by a specific name (refusing to call this sexuality), and calling it something entirely different, does not change the definition of something. ‘A fig is a fig and a trough is a trough.[A] rose is a rose is a rose’ (Gertrude Stein, 1913). Call sexuality by any other name, and it remains sexuality. Ultimately, this is one argument, albeit a fairly weak argument, used in my essay as an attempt to disprove the notion that sexuality is simply a modern invention. I merely included this given argument here because I liked the above idioms.

Back onto Christmas. Previously in this article, I stated that Father Christmas was not understood as we do today until the Victorian period. Traditional notions of the human embodiment of Christmas, Christmas incarnate if you will, were combined in the 19th century. The same can be said of other beloved festive traditions. Wassailing, with its Pagan roots, was a tradition which is difficult to conclusively define due to its many variations, but, in short, people would go from house to house, singing in exchange for a sip of a beverage contained in a wassail bowl. The tradition does not sound dissimilar to carolling, but may also, to my fellow Scots, sound more similar to the modern practice of guising, or the Scottish equivalent of trick-or-treating. It seems as though wassailing was bastardised in the 19th century, turning into carolling and/or guiding. 

Like sexuality, I believe Christmas ought to be understood with a relativist lens. In some cultures, Krampus, a mythical creature which beats misbehaving children with a stick, is a key part of festivities. In English culture, though, Krampus may be completely unfamiliar. Like the concept of sexuality, Christmas traditions have changed since the fin-de-siècle. The character of Zwarte Piet, once a prominent feature of the festive period in the low countries, has come under fire in recent years due to the use of blackface in portrayals of the character. Thankfully, this tradition is adapting, but not quickly enough. Many would argue it ought to disappear altogether.

Many argue that Pride events have largely become a commercial spectacle, with little of the activist background we traditionally associate with the event. Some argue that Christmas too has become too commercial

What about consumer capitalism and both sexuality and Christmas? Well, you may be familiar with the concept of the pink economy. Many argue that Pride events have largely become a commercial spectacle, with little of the activist background we traditionally associate with the event. Some argue that Christmas too has become too commercial. Certainly, I have noticed that my beloved tins of Christmas chocolate have been becoming more expensive, and smaller. The very fact, though, that I consider Christmas chocolate to be as much a part of Christmas as a Christmas tree and carols, may indicate the fact that the commercialisation of Christmas has well and truly won. 

There appear to be endless comparisons which one can make between sexuality and Christmas. However, you celebrate the festive period, if at all, my only hope this Christmas is that you can use this article to start a heated debate at the dinner table with your family or friends.

Dillon Thompson 

Featured image courtesy of Caleb Woods via Unsplash Image license found here. No changes were made to this image. 

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