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Merry Christmas! I am thrilled you are spending a piece of your Christmas holiday here with us today. That’s a lovely gift in and of itself to have you on the other side of the speakers today as we explore the Christmas tradition of gift giving in 17th century England, and exactly what Shakespeare would have received as a Christmas gift in December over 400 years ago. We are also going to explore what kinds of gifts were popular to be given throughout society for the Christmas holidays from the peasants all the way to the Queen. We are delighted to be speaking with an expert in gift giving for Shakespeare’s lifetime, and the author of The Power of Gifts: Gift-exchange in Early Modern England, Dr. Felicity Heal.  

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 Dr Felicity Heal
was for many years a lecturer at Jesus College in the University of Oxford. She specializes in the History of Britain and Ireland under the Tudor and Stuart kings and has published extensively on the social and religious history of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Among her books are Hospitality in Early Modern England 📚 and The Power of Gifts: Gift-Exchange in Early Modern England.📚 She is a Fellow of the British Academy.

I’ll be asking Felicity heal about:

  • In the modern celebrations of Christmas, we give gifts on Christmas day, but Shakespeare celebrated Christmas for over two weeks or more. Were gifts given only on a single day, or throughout the holiday season?  
  • Were the gifts different at different times? For example: For Twelfth Night the celebrations were rambunctious and loud, but of course the holiday itself is about the sacred religious celebration of Jesus’ birth, so were there varying definitions of appropriate gift giving depending on where you were at in the celebration from what could potentially be Christmas celebrations from October through February?  
  • What kinds of gifts were popular to give one another in a family like between William and Anne Hathaway and their children, for example? 
  • …and more!

Folger Library website, from their series “Shakespeare and Beyond” section on Elizabethan holidays, shows the gift rolls recorded in Elizabeth’s reign. 

Lucy Worsley’s PBS Program, the 12 Days of Tudor Christmas

Maria Herbert, Christmas in Shakespeare’s England 📚

Father Christmas 1652 | Public Domain | Source | More information inside this episode!

Father Christmas in Shakespeare’s England

Here today to help us understand the holiday spirit and the role of characters like Father Christmas during Shakespeare’s lifetime is our guest and historian Elizabeth Norton.


“…At Christmas I no more desire a rose Than wish a snow in May’s new-fangled mirth;.”

— Love’s Labour’s Lost (I.1)

The table fountain designed by Holbein for Anne Boleyn was item no. 998 in the 1574 inventory of Elizabeth I. | 1533, Design for a Table Fountain with the Badge of Anne Boleyn. Pen and black ink over chalk on paper, 25.1 × 16.4 cm, Kunstmuseum Basel, Kupferstichkabinett.| Public Domain | Source

Christmas celebrations lasted for 12 days, but gift-giving did not

Example of a Salt Branch featuring Fossilized Shark Teeth. This apparatus (along with anything made of unicorn’s horn) was believed to guard against poison. | Vienna, Treasury of the German Order. So called “Natternzungenkredenz ( 15th/16th century ) made of fossil shark teeth and red coral ( Inv.-Nr. K-037 ) | Photo by Wolfgang Sauber | This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported2.5 Generic2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license. | Source

In Shakespeare’s lifetime, the celebration of the Christmas season could extend as far as from October through February, and include festivities, and Christmas themed mirth. The main celebratory time known as the 12 Days of Christmas was when labor was stopped for all workers of the land. Their harvests were in, and they were allowed a break for these 12 days, with work only resuming on the Monday after Twelfth Night (that Monday was known as Plough Monday). Twelfth Night is the Eve of Epiphany, celebrated either January 5 or January 6, depending on if you start counting Christmas Day or the day after, on December 26th. Traditionally, the 12 days count from Christmas Day (December 25) until Epiphany (January 5).

Despite it being a celebration of Christmas, gifts were not typically given to one another for Christmas Day and instead, it was common to give gifts on New Year’s Day. Surprisingly, as Felicity points out, not between spouses, but instead most commonly from parents to children, or children to parents, and of course from servants to masters, and to those in authority when you wished to make a good, highly political, statement.

Queen Elizabeth, for example, was given many gifts ranging in scope from the ordinary to the wild and exotic. A complete record of the gifts she was given is recorded for posterity in the Gift Rolls, some of which are available from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Some items recorded in the inventory of Elizabeth I that were both received, as well as given, as gifts to foreign dignitaries, include candle sticks, golden goblets, book covers, and spoons and forks.

In December of 1607, King James I had some of Elizabeth I’s jewelry refurbished into gifts for his wife, Anne of Denmark. That year, he gave her a cup made of unicorn’s horn with a gold cover, accessorized with diamonds and pearls. He also gave her a salt branch set with sapphires and fossilized shark teeth (which he called serpent’s tongue), and a crystal chess board with topaz and crystal pieces. (Source: Frederick Devon, Issues of the Exchequer During the Reign of James I (London, 1836), pp. 305-6.)

The Royal Gold Cup (a gift to Elizabeth I and listed among her inventory of 1574) is 23.6 cm (9.3 in) high and 17.8 cm (7.0 in) across at its widest point. It weighs 1.935 kg (4.27 lb) of solid gold, enamels and jewels, showing scenes from the life of Saint Agnes. Now in the British Museum, it was item no. 48 in the 1574 inventory, and later given away by James I. | Photo by BabelStone | Cup Housed at the British Museum | Public Domain | Source

England Unique in Europe for Gifts at Christmas

England was unique compared to other European countries in regards to how they approached gift giving for the holidays in the Tudor period.

Twelfth Night itself was a wild and rambunctious time of mirth, where the only common theme was an upheaval of regular order and structure. This sort of wild behavior butted up against more religious and sacred celebrations of the Christmas holiday, which is a marked honoring of the birth of Jesus Christ. Felicity shares with us in this episode that while there were some gifts associated with the sacred holiday of Christmas, it was not significant, and the day of Christmas itself was was held as a feast of the Church, with services, feasting, music, and preaching being the expected them of that day itself. It was rare that a gift would have been given on Christmas Day.

Felicity shares that for England, in particular, it doesn’t seem as if there were specific days set aside for gift giving at all, but instead was a sort of collective activity that happened at many various times. This approach was unique from other European countries. In Germany, for example, it was quite common to give gifts on Epiphany.

When gifts were given in England, food items were particularly popular. It was common for a husband to bring back spices from London, a commodity it was hard to get outside of the city. Conversely, families in the country would often send pheasants, or large cheeses, as gifts to their relatives who were in the city, where getting fresh meat and cheese was more difficult. Felicity points out that from children to parents, it was routine for children to make handmade presents for their parents, with night caps a common choice as a gift for fathers.


“…and still as he refused it, the rabblement hooted and clapped their chapped hands and threw up their sweaty night-caps…”

— Julius Caesar, (I.2)

New Year’s gift-roll of Elizabeth I, 1 January 1584: Egerton MS 3052, f. 3r (detail) | Source

The Folger holds six of Elizabeth’s New Year’s gift rolls, and their catalog records can be found here: New Year’s gift rolls of Elizabeth I

Images of two of the rolls can be found here:

1578/9: https://luna.folger.edu/luna/servlet/s/a1dxtx
1584/5: https://luna.folger.edu/luna/servlet/s/ggv59a

Transcriptions were published in The Elizabethan new year’s gift exchanges, 1559-1603 (folger.edu). To access the online version of this text, you have to first create a Folger Request account here: Folger Request Logon

The Folger has included the rolls in several exhibitions, including A New Year’s GiftElizabeth I: Then and Now, and The Pen’s Excellencie.

Politically Motivated Gifts

Felicity’s book talks about gifts as a motivating power in politics. Authors of books would present their books as gifts to the Queen for endorsement, or hoping she would promote them. Several high ranking families in England used gifts to further their political careers.

The Sydney family routinely gave gifts to the Queen in celebration of the New Year. Henry, the Lord Deputy in Ireland, and famous son Sir Philip Sydney, gave elaborate gifts. Their political positions were difficult in Elizabeth’s reign, and the giving of elaborate gifts served to bolster their reputation and position. As an example, in 1578, Henry gave a jewel to the Queen. The jewel had the image of Diana, the goddess of the hunt, and a ship on the back of the jewel. The imagery was intended to remind the Queen that he remained overseas in her service, and that he had served her through the ship.

Detail from New Year’s gift-roll of Elizabeth I, featuring Elizabeth I’s signature at the bottom, dated 1 January 1567: Add MS 9772, f. 10v | Source

Another example of a political gift given to Elizabeth I included Philip Syndey’s gift three years later, in 1581, when he was in disgrace. He had gone against the Queen’s wishes and married a Catholic. In order to apologize for his behavior, Philip sent jewelry to the Queen. The piece was a gold jewel in the shape of a whip, suggesting to the Queen that he had made a mistake and he was sending her an image of punishment as an apology.

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“The gift doth stretch itself as ’tis received, And is enough for both.”

— Alls Well That Ends Well (II.1)

From Act II, Scene 3 of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night | by George Henry Hall – Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection http://luna.folger.edu/luna/servlet/s/1uj3q1 | Public Domain | Source

Remarkable Christmas Seasons

While most Christmas celebrations from Shakespeare’s lifetime likely passed in ways very similar to one another, there are a couple that can be suggested as remarkable Christmas seasons.

1588 must have been a Christmas season where spirits were high, as the English had just defeated the Spanish Armada.

In the mid- 1590s famine was wreaking havoc across the land, so it’s presumable there must have been smaller celebration, particularly in ordinary households, when supplies would have been meager.

At court, 1602 stands out as a remarkable Christmas because it is the year that Twelfth Night was written. Felicity suggests Twelfth Night was “obviously written with the Christmas season in mind.” Ben Jonson produces masques for almost every Christmas Season during this time period. Some of his more famous include The Masque of Blackness in 1605, and Oberon, in 1611.

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That’s it for this week! Thank you for listening. I’m Cassidy Cash, and I hope you learn something new about the bard. I’ll see you next time!