Welcome to Episode #030 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

I believe that if you want to understand Shakespeare's plays, then understanding the life of William Shakespeare, the man, is essential. This podcast is designed to help you explore early modern England as Shakespeare would have lived it by interviewing the historians, performers, authors, and experts that know him best.

With the holidays upon us, this Christmas Eve we wanted to celebrate with our favorite Elizabethan: William Shakespeare.

Christmas was a popular celebration even 400 years ago and from the time young William was born growing up in Stratford Upon Avon, England, there were several important traditions that he used to mark the holiday with his family and friends.

Here to help us explore the Christmas traditions surrounding the kinds of foods and festivities the bard would have eaten or participated in for his Christmas time is the Town House Steward and Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Emily Ireson.

Join the conversation below.
Itunes | Stitcher | TuneIn | GooglePlay | iHeartRadio

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. 

Every Christmas Emily is in charge of dressing Shakespeare’s childhood home to reflect a traditional Elizabethan Christmas, including Twelfth Night and seasonal festivities. With a Masters in Museum studies from the University of Glasgow, specifically studying Fashion and Culture of the 17-19th centuries, Emily joins us today to share with us the details of Christmas in the 17th century, and what it takes to celebrate a Shakespearean Christmas.
In this episode, I’ll be asking Emily about :

  • What is the process to get ready for Christmas at Shakespeare's Birthplace?
  • What kinds of foods would have been served at an Elizabethan Christmas?
  • Would Shakespeare have decorated with ivy and other greenery at Christmas time?

    …and more!

Holly and Ivy

John Stow’s 1598 Survey of London records that the Mayor and Sheriffs

‘had their several Lords of Misrule, ever contending without quarrel or offence, who should make the rarest pastimes to delight the beholders.’ They provided ‘fine and subtle disguisings, masques and mummeries, with playing at cards… in every house, more for pastime than for gain…Against the feast of Christmas, every man’s home, as also their parish churches, the conduits and standards [water pipes] in the street, were decked with holm, ivy, bays and whatsoever the season of the year afforded to be green’

Holly and Ivy were just a few of the greenery decorations used at Christmastime, and fitting to the theme of role reversal, many of the greenery used to decorate for Christmas was, for the rest of the year, considered unlucky and would not be welcome inside the home.


We'll feast each other ere we part;

Antony and Cleopatra II.6

A big feast, along with rampant hospitality not normally offered to passersby was the rule at Christmas time. Lords of the manor would hold large feasts for their servants and staff, and they kept extra bits of food and beer on standby for anyone that happened by the house looking for food. The term wassailing used to apply to this kind of travel from house to house looking for food and ale, and is the source for where our modern day Christmas caroling came from. Beggars would often sing songs as they went from house to house.

Humble Pie The “humbles” were the less desirable parts of an animal, like the kidneys, intestines, brains, heart, or liver. These items would be compiled by the servants of a household into a pie called Humble Pie, after the aristocracy enjoyed the more choice cuts of meat at their table. The pie was prepared like a stew, with fruit like apples or currants, then seasoned with salt, sugar, and spices.

“Good thou, save / me a piece of marchpane; and, as thou lovest me…”

Romeo and Juliet I.5

Marchpane was a kind of holiday dessert, this article shares a great recipe for how to make it:

“Take two pounds of Almonds being blanched and dryed in a sieve over a fire: beat them in a stone mortar; and when they bee small, mix with them two pounds of sugar being finely beaten, adding 2 or 3 spoonfuls of Rose-water, and that will keeps your almonds from oyling. When your paste is beaten fine, drive it thin with a rowling ping, and so lay it on a bottom of wafers: then raise up a little edge on the side, and so bake it: then yce it with Rose-water and sugar: then put it into the oven once again, and when you see your yce is rise up, & dry, then take it out of the oven, & garnish it with pretty conceits, as birds and beasts, being cast out of standing moulds. Stick long comfits upright in it: cast biskets and carrowaies on it, and so serve it: gild it before you serve it: you may also print off this Marchpane paste in your molds for banquetting dishes: and of this paste our comfitmakers at this day make their letters, knots, Arms, Escocheons, beasts, birds, and other fancies.”

It is one of the confections re-created for the Christmas celebrations at Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.



Beck [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Mince Pies

“Ay, a minced man: and then to be baked with no date in the pie”

Troilus and Cressida, I.2

Minced meat pies were popular at Christmas, being made from meat (usually lamb as a nod to the shepherds), and containing 13 ingredients to mark Jesus + 12 Apostles. Many times, the top of the pie was decorated with a star shape dough to mark the star of Bethlehem.


Holiday Games and Sport

“And that set together is noddy.”

-Two Gentlemen of Verona (I.1)

Games were a grand part of festivities and it was often the job of the Lord of Misrule, appointed to oversee the games and festivities for Christmastime. One game that was popular for Elizabethans was the card game called Noddy. Mentioned by name three times in Shakespeare's plays suggests it was an established part of the culture when he was writing. Along with card games, there were other games we know today as children's playground games like Hot-Cockles, or Blind Man's Bluff. Bowling was another game played in England, though Henry VIII tried his best to turn it into a gentleman's game by outlawing it to the general public, but by Shakespeare's time was generally enjoyed by a wide swath of society. During Christmas, games and all manner of festive celebration was a constant sport throughout the twelve days the country took off work to celebrate and mark the season from Christmas Eve to Epiphany.

Books & Resources Emily Recommends:

As Emily mentions today, primary documents are the best way to get first hand accounts of life in Shakespeare's time. You can see many of them online in digital archives like this one from the Folger Shakespeare Library in the United States called Shakespeare Documented.

Visit Shakespeare's Birthplace, and explore the archives at Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. 
We will be visiting this exact location next Fall. Travel with us!

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. 

Click to Tweet

To share That Shakespeare Life on Twitter quickly and easily, just click the box below. Your tweet will automatically be populated with this copy:

Comment and Share

Please consider rating the podcast with 5 stars and leaving a one- or two-sentence review in iTunes or on Stitcher.  Rating the podcast helps tremendously with bringing the podcast to the attention of others.

We encourage you to join the That Shakespeare Girl community on Facebook. It’s a community of professional Shakespeareans and Shakespeare enthusiasts, as well as fans of That Shakespeare Life.

You can tell your friends on Twitter about your love of Shakespeare and our new podcast by simply clicking this link and sharing the tweet you’ll find at the other end.

And, by all means, if you know someone you think would love to learn about the life of William Shakespeare, please spread the word by using the share buttons on this page.

And remember: In order to really know William Shakespeare, you have to go behind the curtain, and into That Shakespeare Life. 

Find video versions of our show inside the app!

Subscribers get 20% off all show merchandise PLUS exclusive access to 3 Minute Animated Plays, Virtual tours, 16th century game tutorials, and more! 

Come inside, where you can cook, craft, and play your way through the life of William Shakespeare.