It’s still Christmas time and I am not ready to take down the decorations yet! How about you? William Shakespeare would have still had his decorations up this time of year, too, though he wouldn’t have had a Christmas tree like I do here. In fact, for William Shakespeare –the heart of the “Christmas season” didn’t start until Christmas Day, and then it would be celebrated for the full 12 days after that, culminating in the grandest celebration at the end of Christmas, on Twelfth Night (Jan 5) ahead of the 12th Day of Christmas, Epiphany, on January 6.

This week, we are exploring 12 Ways Shakespeare would have celebrated the nigh unto 3 Month season during which many in England celebrated as the Christmas Season. Follow this guide and you can spend the two weeks between Christmas Day and New Years wrapped in the same merry that Shakespeare enjoyed during his lifetime.

You may recognize Twelfth Night as one of Shakespeare’s plays, and that production was performed for Christmas celebrations at Whitehall Palace on [date]. But wait–some astute Shakespearean scholars might protest here that Twelfth Night was performed in February before the Inns of Court and isn’t that well after the Christmas season? Well, here’s the details on why this holiday favorite was not misplaced by it’s Feb performance date.

In early modern England, there were variations to the length of the season depending on your social status. So the Christmas play season for some stretched from 1 November (All Saints Day) all the way to 2 February (Candlemas, or Purification Day). The Inns of Court, where Twelfth Night was performed, followed this extended season. So rather than performing on the last day of the winter solstice/twelve days of Christmas, Shakespeare performed it on the last day of the Christmas play season. Candlemas was also the last day before the fields were tilled and England soberly prepared for Lent. So Shakespeare did end the season with Twelfth Night revelry after all.

Another Christmas Episode You Might Enjoy:

This week we are going to outline some of the ways Shakespeare celebrated these 12 Days of Christmas (including performing his signature holiday extravaganza that is 12th Night) and all of these tidbits of ELizabethan history are things you can try out at home to bring some Shakespeare into your own home this holiday season. See the show notes below this video for links to where you can download instructions and recipes for each of the ideas we’ll cover here.

Remember as I outline these that assigning these activities to a particular day and counting through them in order from 1-12 is totally my doing. Shakespeare would have done any number of these things in any kind of number and often all together at feasts or other celebrating, so the list is for your benefit and of my own creation here, not because they were assigned to a particular day when Shakespeare was doing it.

All right, Here we go!

Day 1: Yule Log

The Yule Log was a giant round log that was lit to mark the start of the start of the holiday season. For some it also marked a ceremonious beginning to the end of work for the season and the start of revelry that marked the 12 days of Christmas. The log was kept burning the entire time, and a piece of the log would be saved to start the fire for next year’s log, as it was thought saving the log from prevous years would bring good luck. This was a tradition that would come over from England to the new colonies in America, with George Washington being known to celebrate the Christmas season as a span of 12 days after Christmas Day, even marrying his wife on Twelfth Night, and marking the start of the season with a yule log. While it’s unclear where the tradition started originally, for the Christian feast of Christmas, the yule log symbolizes the battle between good and evil: “as the fire grew brighter and burned hotter, and as the log turned into ashes, it symbolized Christ's final and ultimate triumph over sin.”

Download the Shakespeare Countdown Calendar

Use this 25 Day countdown calendar to celebrate the Christmas season with a daily dose of Shakespeare all the way up to Christmas Day. Subscribe to That Shakespeare Life newsletter using this form, and you will immediately download the guide where you can start cooking, watching, writing, and exploring the Christmas history of William Shakespeare.

Day 2: Apple Wassail

Wassail was a key part of celebrating Twelfth Night, which we talk about in this week's episode of That Shakespeare Life, we talk with Francois Laroque. Dr. Laroque shares with us about Shakespeare's play, Twelfth Night, as well as the real historical traditions the bard would have used to celebrate the holiday. Wassailing was the act of going from house to house singing what is comparable to Christmas carols today, and they often took with them (or received from the houses) this traditional apple wassail beverage . See the full recipe and watch the video on how to make it here 

Day 3: Bean Cake

The main event for this holiday was to have a cake in the center of a table. Every one would take a piece of this cake and two pieces had a dried pea and bean. Who ever had this in their slice would be royalty for one day no matter their position in society the rest of the year. Servants, lower classmen, and even visiting strangers were all treated to benefits and deference if they found the special piece in their cake.

Day 4: Lord of Misrule

The Lord of Misrule was appointed to be in charge of Christmas revelries, which often included drunkenness and wild partying.
The custom was abolished by Henry VIII in 1541, restored by the Catholic Mary I and again abolished by Protestant Elizabeth I, though here and there people still hung onto the idea. 

John Stow in his Survey of London, published in 1603, gives a description of the Lord of Misrule:

[I]n the feaste of Christmas, there was in the kinges house, wheresoeuer hee was lodged, a Lord of Misrule, or Maister of merry disports, and the like had yee in the house of euery noble man, of honor, or good worshippe, were he spirituall or temporall. Amongst the which the Mayor of London, and eyther of the shiriffes had their seuerall Lordes of Misrule, euer contending without quarrell or offence, who should make the rarest pastimes to delight the Beholders. These Lordes beginning their rule on Alhollon Eue [Halloween], continued the same till the morrow after the Feast of the Purification, commonlie called Candlemas day: In all which space there were fine and subtle disguisinges, Maskes and Mummeries, with playing at Cardes for Counters, Nayles and pointes in euery house, more for pastimes then for gaine.

The Lord of Misrule is also referred to by Philip Stubbes in his Anatomie of Abuses (1585) as

“the wilde heades of the parishe conventynge together, chuse them a grand Capitaine (of mischeefe) whom they ennobel with the title Lorde of Misrule”. He then gives a description of the way they dress colourfully, tie bells onto their legs and “go to the churche (though the minister be at praier or preachyng) dauncying and swingyng their handercheefes”

By the 17th century, Puritanism had entirely abolished revels like the Lord of Misrule and this tradition fell into the past.

Science Labs for History

Digital history activity kits based on games, recipes, and crafts from Shakespeare's plays. Each one is full of tutorials, supply lists, and step by step instructions so you can cook, play, and create your way through the life of William Shakespeare.

Learn Shakespeare history the fun way--with hands on activities you can do at home or in your classroom. 

Day 5: See Twelfth Night performed

See the play, Twelfth Night. Shakespeare performed this play for several Christmas occasions during his lifetime, and there are many themes of the holiday to be found within the play itself. If you would like to watch this play peformed as part of your CHristmas season, you can check your local theater for available performances, or you can watch some of the online performances I have cataloged for you on my website. There are playing companies like the Royal Shakespeare Company as well as smaller, high school and college companies, who have made their performances available for free online and I’ve linked to them in the show notes today. You can also check out any number of the film versions of this play to bring some Shakespeare into your holiday movie line up. (Hamlet is a great Christmas play to check out as well)

Day 6: Kissing Bough

Made of many different plants, this globe or wreath shaped evergreen creation hung up in homes and businesses to invite whoever ended up underneath to embrace one another, or to kiss.

Day 7: Mince Meat Pies

Today when we think of mince pies, we think of sweet apples, raisins, and cinnamon. In Shakespeare’s day, though, the pies were full of mutton and beef and were a lot heartier than the pies we eat today. For a recipe, visit http://findingshakespeare.co.uk/a-shakespearean-christmas-with-traditional-minced-meat-pies.

Mince pies get their name from the fact that the filling is ‘minced’ small – that is, chopped very finely. From at least the Middle Ages, these pies included a proportion of meat, generally chicken and tongue, rump steak or mutton, along with the other ingredients that we would recognise today – suet, dried fruit, citrus peel, sugar spices and alcohol. The change to a sweet pie is relatively recent, with recipes for Christmas Mince Pies in Victorian and Edwardian cookery books still often including meat.

Lady Elinor Fettiplace’s Mince Pies are savoury, rich and fruity but not at all sweet – much closer to mediaeval meat pies, baked without extra liquid, liberally spiced, and lightly moistened with only fruit, suet, rosewater and alcohol, giving the idea that these were designed to be eaten as a small treat from the hand rather than formally at the dinner table.

There’s a great recipe and outline of how to make a mince meat pie from Folger Shakespeare Library that I’ll link to in the comments and be sure to subscribe to my channel right here to see us give this a go next week! We’ll be trying out mince meat pies for our Experience Shakespeare video in January, and you don’t want to miss cooking with us!

Day 8: Caroling

There are tons of versions of songs from the 16th century that you could sing to mark the holiday season, and often tehse were sung while drinking wassail. The word Wassail means both the drink, to drink it, and to sing carols. That’s why one famous song says “a wassailing we will go?” people travelled from house to house singing carols in hopes they would be given some of the beer and bread that had been set aside for travellers and the poor.

Day 9: Beer and Bread for the Poor

Which brings us to our Day 9 celebration, and that’s being charitable to the poor. In Elizabethan England, it was customary during the Christmas season to feed and give drink to anyone who was passing by. There were foods, particularly extra ale and bread, set a side at most houses for the purpose of giving to anyone who showed up begging or stopped in as a wayward traveller. Wassailing, or to sing carols at someone’s door, was a way to let them know you were there and requested food/drink. The wassail bowl –which is something of a punch bowl, was served this way as a community beverage so anyone who wanted some just dipped from it. It was often served with alochol, that was a warming beverage option during cold English winters.

Day 10: Games

Games! The playing of card games, board games, and community games was a huge part of the celebratory season. Noddy, Maw, Hoodman’s Blind,and other games were very popular.

Day 11: Decorate with Green Plants!

Shakespeare may not have had a Christmas tree, he did decorate for the holiday season with leaves each of which had a special meaning. bay, laurel, ivy, and holly leaves, decorations which were kept in place to the end of the period of celebration. Stow’s Survey of London from the early 17th century says that “every man's house, as also their parish churches, were decked with holm, ivy, bays, and whatsoever the season of the year afforded to be green. The conduits and the standards in the streets were likewise garnished”

Day 12: Big Feast

Host a large feast! The highlight of the holiday season was the hosting of a large feast where all manner of animal, plant, and sweets would be served. Often entire animals like whole deer, whole pig, or even large geese would be decorated, stuffed, and displayed as part of the feast. There was an unlimited supply of ale and libation along with speciality sugar treats like marchpane and cakes to enjoy.

All of these things are ways you can celebrate the 12 Days of Christmas and extend your holiday season all the way into the first week of January with all the revelry, mischief, frivolity, and merriment, just like William Shakespeare.

Until next time, I’m Cassidy Cash, and I hope you learn something new about the bard.

Download the Shakespeare Countdown Calendar

Use this 25 Day countdown calendar to celebrate the Christmas season with a daily dose of Shakespeare all the way up to Christmas Day. Subscribe to That Shakespeare Life newsletter using this form, and you will immediately download the guide where you can start cooking, watching, writing, and exploring the Christmas history of William Shakespeare.