A Very Shakespeare Christmas
by J. M. Pressley, SRC Editor
Shakespeare Fun Fact
When greeted with "Wassail," the proper response is "Drink hail!" Wassailing was a ritual meant to ensure a good cider harvest in the upcoming year.
It's another holiday season of eating, gift-giving, and festivity. But someone recently sent the SRC an email asking about how Shakespeare would have celebrated the holiday. In short: we don't know about Shakespeare specifically. He doesn't write much about Christmas in his plays and poetry. But certainly, he and everyone else in England would have celebrated Christmas back in the day; England pretty much shut down for business from late December through early January. We can reasonably guess that he participated in the festivities along with the rest of the population.
Shakespeare even mentions Christmas directly three times. In which plays? You'll have to read to the end to find out. Yes, it's a cheap trick to get you to read, but there you have it.
When Did Shakespeare Celebrate Christmas?
During Shakespeare's time, Christmas wasn't just a lone holiday; it was a season unto itself. The festivities technically would start on the night of Christmas Eve (December 24) with the burning of a Yule log. The holidays would officially begin December 25 and continue for 12 more days (just like the song) until January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany. Not coincidentally, it's posited that Shakespeare's play Twelfth Night was named for the revelry that took place during this time.
In Shakespeare's day, the English would have celebrated five feast days at Christmastime:
- December 26, Feast of St. Stephen
- December 27, Feast of St. John
- December 28, Feast of the Holy Innocents
- January 1, Feast of the Circumcision
- January 5, Twelfth Night/Epiphany Eve
How Did Shakespeare Celebrate Christmas?
Many of the Elizabethan traditions would be familiar to us today. To start with, nearly everyone stopped working during the 12 days of festivities, and they wouldn't go back to work until Plough Monday (the first Monday after Twelfth Night). Homes were decorated with holly, ivy, and other greenery. Christmas Day itself was a time of religious devotion; hospitality and charity were expected throughout the 12 days. Gifts would be given, but on January 1 rather than Christmas.
Much of the holidays was spent in revelry and song.1 On Christmas Eve and morning, people traveled around their parish singing carols. On Twelfth Night, groups would go wassailing, visiting house to house with an empty cup meant for homeowners to fill with spiced cider or ale, so the group could drink to the owner's health (and it was considered bad luck to decline). The Elizabethans, always loving their entertainment, attended plays and bear-baiting in droves. There would be dancing and games as well—adults as well as children might play at Barley-Break, Dun in the Mire, or Hoodman's Blind.2
The nobility and gentry held lavish pageants, balls, and feasts during the 12 days and nights. A Lord of Misrule would have been appointed to preside over all the festivity from each evening until morning. For the more common folk, on Twelfth Day a bean might be baked into a cake divided and parceled out to children and servants. The lucky recipient would be pronounced King of the Bean3, to rule until the end of Twelfth Night.
Shakespeare likely celebrated Christmas in London often during his career; his company is documented as performing for the royal court during the holidays on numerous occasions between 1594 and 1608.
What Did Shakespeare Eat at Christmas?
It's likely that Shakespeare ate fairly well at Christmas, since this was a general time of feasting. Among the popular dishes were roast pork or beef, mutton, goose, plum porridge, and several variants of minced pies. Turkey was popular too, having first made it from North America to English dinner tables around 1527.
In aristocratic households, banquets would become extravagant affairs that included all manner of meats as well as imported fruits and vegetables. And much like today, there was an excess of sweetmeats (called the banquet course), including gingerbread, tarts, candied fruits, and a cultural favorite, marchpane (a form of marzipan). Meanwhile, the servants could look forward to humble pie4, so named because it was made from the "humbles" of the deer—kidneys, liver, intestines, etc. These would be seasoned and stewed with suet, apples, and currants, ostensibly to make the humble pie palatable.
So...Which of Shakespeare's Plays Mentioned Christmas?
1 One of our best contemporary sources for Christmas festivities back in Shakespeare's time was the 1604 work Father Hubburd's Tales by Thomas Middleton, which is available online as part of The Works of Thomas Middleton (1886).
2 Barley-Break was a group game in which one couple or player stationed in a defined area called "hell" or the "barley field" tries to catch the others as they venture into it. Dun in the Mire refers literally to getting a horse out of the mud; players competed to lift a heavy log and carry it off. Hoodman's Blind is generally accepted to be an ancestor of Blind Man's Bluff, in which the person chosen as "it" had a hood pulled over his head and sought to capture the other players as they shoved and whipped him. This was all considered fun by Elizabethans, who also viewed executions and bear-baiting as entertaining.
3 In some traditions, if either a man or woman found the bean, they would be King/Queen of the Bean and choose a king or a queen to rule with them. In others, a pea was included, which if found by a woman made her Queen of the Bean alongside whichever man had found the bean. We're not sure what happened if a man found the pea first.
4 Although we're familiar with the figurative usage today, "humble pie" as a metaphor for self-abasement didn't come about until well into the nineteenth century. You can learn more about this usage shift via Voice: The English Learners Dictionary Blog.
5 Biron (1.1): "At Christmas I no more desire a rose" and Biron (5.2) "To dash it like a Christmas comedy."
6 Christopher Sly (Prologue, 2): "Is not a comonty a Christmas gambold or a tumbling-trick?"