Jake Bellissimo, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and head of Drunk With Love Records, has just released a Christmas single, ‘Jolly Old Saint Nick’. Based on a love letter they wrote to Santa as a child, the song is rich and nostalgic, pairing intimate vocals with timeless piano to create a classical ambience that evokes the wistful spirit of the season.
However, this isn’t just some throwaway schmaltz for the holidays. Instead, Bellissimo takes their childhood letter and uses it as a jumping-off point for self-reflection on themes of love and identity. The single is an attempt “to disentangle my queerness,” they explain, “and how that’s factored into my relationships.”
Bellissimo has written an essay which explores these themes in much greater detail, and today we have the pleasure of publishing it. So click play and scroll down to learn more.
This essay was originally written on August 11th, 2019
Love, Queerness, and Jolly Old Saint Nick
by Jake Bellissimo
Growing up and understanding my queerness has always felt like an issue of linguistics. Had I known of the different types of LGBTQ subcultures (i.e. bear culture), perhaps I would have realized I was queer before the age of 13 as opposed to comparing myself to the twink-oriented mainstream gay culture of the early 2000s. On a similar note, if I had already been familiar with the term nonbinary from a young age, I likely would have come to terms with my gender identity before my junior year of college.
However, one of the most damningly queer pieces from my childhood is a letter I wrote to Santa Claus that included a drawing of him in the center:
to: santa clause
from: jake bellissimo
TAKE IT HOME!
I love you Santa. do you love me? i am 7 years old. how old are you? Santa.
In response, the elementary school teacher collecting the assignment assumed the role of Santa, answering in short responses of “yes” and “94 years old”. At the bottom of the note, “Santa C.” wrote “I love the picture, but I want you to keep it. It looks like you worked really hard on it!”
Without context, this letter might simply read as a typical childlike note to Santa, but I’ve always thought of it as an indication of what was to come. Though I didn’t begin actually dating and meeting men for romance or sex until I was 17, I have spent my whole life wrestling with love, gender identity, and sexuality.
For example, I didn’t realize I was even gay until 13 years old. I had an attraction to men, sure, but I didn’t have the vocabulary to even know that was attraction. I liked some girls more than others, so I took that to be the indication that I was “straight”—the only word I knew surrounding sexuality. Growing up in a conservative, Roman Catholic environment didn’t help either, with the church consistently viewing gender identity and sexuality to be harmful life choices. However, once my friend B came out to me as bisexual in 8th grade, it all clicked—I was definitely attracted to men. It felt like placing the last few pieces of a jigsaw puzzle together and suddenly recognizing the image.
The only way I can describe that feeling (a feeling that I believe is distinctly queer) is that it manifested in a wave of relief followed by a wave of tension. My whole life made sense at that moment, but I also knew it would become more difficult to navigate. I would come to terms with that difficulty when I was outed during a particularly threatening and tumultuous time at the end of 9th grade.
Coming out didn’t solve my sexual confusion, though. I went through a period of self discovery that involved a lot of self deprecation, exploring my interest in more masculine-presenting individuals while harboring a lot of internal queerphobia for those who didn’t fit that established archetype. This became more complicated throughout the years as I realized my attraction was mainly towards men over the age of 35, but I tried to suppress this. There was no term for being attracted to older men in my vocabulary, so I assumed it was something to be resolved, something to be analyzed in therapy and subsequently dealt with.
Throughout college, a majority of my friend circles and dating pools ended up being filled with people significantly older than me. Because I also dealt with sexual trauma during this time and began to unearth that I had been repressing similar traumas from my childhood, I assumed that my sexuality was not me, but rather a coping mechanism. Despite the fact that it was not purely sexual or relating to paternal security (both typical reasons as to how people explain inter-generational relationships), I would treat my sexuality as something to be ashamed of and drown it out with various substances.
A lot changed in my life when I moved to Prenzlauer Berg (Berlin) in the summer of 2015. I ended up seeing a guy who was 30 years older than me, coming to the realization that I shouldn’t worry about the way in which I love. Instead of spending time worrying about why I loved him, I was able to focus solely on the fact that I did.
That relationship would change, with power dynamics introduced that would eventually lead it to failure. However, the fallout caused many family members to agree with the relationship’s demise. I was frequently told that the age difference was the reason why the relationship did not work out, returning me back to the viewpoint that my sexuality and way of loving was something to be ashamed of.
Though I believe the potential for a relationship to have uneven power dynamics greatly increases when two individuals are at different points in their lives, I consider it to be a more nuanced issue than simply “age gaps are dangerous”.
With this knowledge and a lot of coping to do, I went back to school in the states to finish the last two years of my Bachelor’s. I dated freely, looked for love in many places, and ended up dating someone much closer to my age (2 years younger than me). However, after a few months I realized that my attraction to this person was more akin to a friendship, causing me to break it off and continue to be friends with them, a dynamic that has stayed strong to this very day.
I proceeded to deliberate over my sexuality, wondering why I felt so lost. By then, I was out as queer, nonbinary, etc., so why did I feel so confused? Even though I had a sense of direction, I felt as if there was no map to begin with. What does it mean to be a nonbinary person in a relationship with a man? Does that make me gay? Or am I not gay because the person I’m with isn’t the same gender as me?
Because there isn’t a large vocabulary to describe who I am and the relationships I’ve had, I still usually opt for using queer and gay interchangeably, acknowledging that both are still blanket statements that leave more unanswered questions than one might think. Instead of saying what I am, they usually just say what I’m not: not heterosexual and not cisgender.
On a family trip to Hawaii in March of 2017, I ended up telling my father nonchalantly (read: not sober) at dinner that I broke up with my then-ex because I “[couldn’t] be with someone younger than twice my age”. Though this wasn’t a direct comment on my sexuality, it was an accurate re-telling of my love life up until that point.
A few days after this, I found myself being driven up Mt. Haleakala by a guy I met off of Growlr. A man with a glowing white beard juxtaposed against the Hawaiian sun, R was someone who not only had a past life as a Santa Claus impersonator, but a prestigious one (it was then I also learned how deep the world of Santa Claus actors goes, politics and all). We spent the afternoon at his house, talking about life and exploring each other. Though it was good sex and a good experience, it became clear to me that he was more romantically interested than I was, leading me to tell him a few weeks later that I wasn’t interested.
In December of 2017, I was 22 years old and John (my partner) was 56. One night while walking back to our apartment in Inwood, John was asked by a friend of a friend if anyone had ever told him that he looked like Santa Claus. When he assumed it was a joke and replied “no”, the person handed him their card—they were a representative at a casting agency for mall Santas. She said he could make $100 an hour and to call him if he’s ever interested in appearing next season. All he had to do was purchase his own Santa costume and then become a local staple of the Christmas festivities.
At of the time of writing this, the business card still sits on a shelf in our NYC kitchen, being more of a humorous callback than a serious career opportunity. I’m also now once again based in Prenzlauer Berg, but spend a good deal of time in the states, with John and I fully accepting that, since the premise of our relationship isn’t “traditional”, why let worries about that dictate our lifestyle now? We don’t need a dictionary for our love, as we’re creating our own vocabulary. I used to think that having no map was an issue, but I now know better than to think that feeling love in a way you’ve never seen could ever be a bad thing.
Though John has no future plans of wearing a red suit and becoming the local Saint Nick, our relationship has blossomed since meeting in August of 2017—we’re getting married tomorrow morning.