But for William Shakespeare, not only did he not have a Christmas tree, but he didn’t even have the same kind of mantle we have in our homes today.
So this week we are exploring the history of Shakespeare’s Christmas by asking, DId Shakespeare write about Christmas?
In his plays, William Shakespeare uses the word “Christmas” three times. Twice in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and once at the very beginning of Taming of the Shrew.
The fun thing about all three references is that they reveal something about what celebrating the holiday of CHristmas meant for William Shakespeare.
The first reference comes from Act 1 Scene 1 of Love’s Labour’s Lost
At Christmas I no more desire a rose
Than wish a snow in May's new-fangled mirth
What Biron is talking about here is that each season of life has normal attributes. Christmas has snow, and May, being in summer, has mirth. Exploring the mirth and celebrations that came with May is for another episode, but for Christmas–snow was a standard part of Christmas celebrations in England for Shakespeare’s lifetime.
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This tradition continues today, since winter is in full swing in England during December. While the image for us today may be one of beauty and a nice blanket of snow, it seems Shakespeare might have been in the camp of seeing Winter as a dreadful, depressing, intensely cold part of Christmas because later in the same play he features a song that highlights the impact of snow—milk coming home frozen, blood running cold, scary owls at night which stare down at you, the blowing wind, everyone has a bad cough, noses getting red and raw, and generally makes winter sound horrible.
The second reference is also from Biron in Love’s Labour’s Lost but this time from Act V, Scene 2. In a long list of various attributes of celebration, Biron mentions
“To dash it like a Christmas comedy:”
This line is important because it reminds us that one of the key aspects of celebrating Christmas for Shakespeare was the comedy. Whether it was performing comedic plays, dressing up in costume or having fun with the Lord of Misrule, Christmas time was marked with a unique tradition in Shakespeare’s lifetime where everything was reversed. You may have done something similar in your elementary school days if you have ever played the game called “opposite day” where you go around pretending yes means no and up means down?
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Learn Shakespeare history the fun way--with hands on activities you can do at home or in your classroom.
Christmas time was that was for William Shakespeare. In performance of plays, but also just for fun, it took the form of role reversal. Living in a very structured society of ordered class rank and defined limits on what was appropriate for each rank, Christmastime was often when rulers, owners, and leaders would trade places with their servants or employees and the lower classes were allowed to enjoy some of the privileges and benefits of a class to which they did not normally belong. Additionally, many peopel would trade genders and dress up like a man if they were a woman, and vice versa. It was funny to see someone going around acting like something they were not, and just like this tropeis used today in modern comedy films and staging performances, so t was popular for William Shakespeare’s lifetime as well. It was a kind of 16th century slap stick comedy that was highly popular, and sepcifically celebrated as part of the Christmas season.
The third and last reference to Christmas in Shakespeare’s playscomes from Christopher Sly in the Prologue of Taming of the Shrew.
let them play it. Is not a comonty a
Christmas gambold or a tumbling-trick?
Christopher Sly reveals in this quote that Christmastime was full of performance and games. The kind pf performance could be a stage play like what Shakespeare wrote, or it could also be all manner of physical attributes, or death defying feats more akin to what you might expect at a circus performance. Jugglers, acrobats, and tumblers would often perform in street presentations or even inside the playhouses themselves. Additionally, gambling–specifically playing at cards and dice was hugely popular for Elizabethans. There are court records of everyone right up to the King and Queen of England who played at cards for money, both winning and losing large sums of money at games. While the gambling games were popular all year round for people like William Shakespeare, the atmosphere of merriment afforded by the holiday season was an especially prominent time for people to play at games.
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