Shakespeare uses the word Christmas only four times in his works, but he has an entire play dedicated to the holiday celebration of Twelfth Night. Did Shakespeare celebrate Christmas?

“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

Marry, I will; let them play it. Is not a comonty a
Christmas gambold or a tumbling-trick?

Taming of the Shrew (Prologue)

For William Shakespeare, Christmas was one of those holidays that (perhaps like today?) was largely celebrated for the sake of celebrating with a mix of religious and pagan reasons for doing so.

Christmas Day didn’t become an official holiday in Scotland, until 1958. Yes, that’s right, it was the 20th century before the Scots celebrated the jolly holiday we all know and love.

For a period of time, Christmas was officially banned throughout the British Isles. The earliest known evidence of Christmas as a liturgical celebration occurs in the Pontificate of Julius I (337-352). He decreed that Dec. 25 was to be observed as the feast of the Nativity of the Lord. (source)

This illustration is from The Lives and Times of the Popes by Chevalier Artaud de Montor, New York: The Catholic Publication Society of America, 1911. It was originally published in 1842 Attribution: Artaud de Montor (1772–1849) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

So what does that mean for Shakespeare? Where was England at in their relationship with Christmas during the 16-17th centuries?

Aravind Sivaraj [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

The Venerable Bede, an eighth-century English monk, wrote about the period of ‘Yule.’ This was an ancient, possibly Norse, word for the months of December and January. It is from this we get the word: ‘Yuletide.’ From 1038, however, the word ‘Cristes Maesse’ appears – ‘Christ’s Mass’ – and as with the religion of the British, this new Christian phrase soon replaces the pagan one. (source)

12th century, there is record of English churches acting out an Epiphany play.

Things progressed quickly from there because by the mid-13th century, mid-13th century, for the royal court and the nobility, the feasting around Christmas had become elaborate.

Scanned from the book The National Portrait Gallery History of the Kings and Queens of England by David Williamson, ISBN 1855142287. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

So much so that King Edward III (1327-1377) passed laws restricting the number of dishes at several of the meal times such was the extravagance of some during the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas.

The pendulum swing continued in history and By the end of the 16th century, as Calvinism took over the British Isles,  many Christmas customs were suppressed,

HEL219079 Portrait of John Calvin (1509-64) (oil on panel) by Swiss School, (16th century)
oil on panel
Bibliotheque Publique et Universitaire, Geneva, Switzerland
© Held Collection
Swiss, out of copyright

John Calvin (July 10, 1509 – May 27, 1564) was a French Protestant theologian during the Protestant Reformation and was a central developer of the system of Christian theology called Calvinism or Reformed theology. Anonymous 16th century portrait of Calvin. (Front cover Cottret, Bernard (2000), Calvin: A Biography, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans) Bibliothèque de Genève AnonymousUnknown author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Christmas was judged as too ‘Papist.’ and by the time of Oliver Cromwell in the late 17th century (about 50 years after Shakespeare died) Christmas was banned all together.

Like much of Shakespeare’s life, it seems as if he was living in a type of bubble where things just happened differently during that 52 year span in England. That’s not to say Shakespeare’s responsible for Christmas (please don’t print that. I didn’t say that!)

But it does seem that the bard celebrated Christmas, just not like we do today.

The traditional Christmas we think of from our childhoods as Americans involves trees, stockings, gifts, Santa Claus, and reindeer. But for William Shakespeare, it was a largely religious acknowledgement of the birth of Christ.

Interestingly, while For Christians the world over this period celebrates the story of the birth of Jesus, in a manger, in Bethlehem, the actual date of Christ’s birth is a mystery, and Dec 25 was assigned to him.

(not unlike Shakespeare himself, really, as we don’t know for sure his exact date of birth either).

Until the 4th century Christmas could be celebrated throughout Europe anywhere between early January through to late September. (source)

1850 painting of Twelfth Night, Act II, Scene IV by Walter Deverell Public domain

One such blurring may involve the Feast of Fools, presided over by the Lord of Misrule. You’ll recognize that reference because it was part of Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night, considered by many to be a festive and holiday themed play, it was first performed in celebration of Twelfth Night, the last night of the Christmas season in 16th century England.

Painting Circa 1859 of Orsino and Viola from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, artist: Frederick Richard Pickersgill Photo: Public domain

Also known as ‘King of Christmas’, The Lord of Misrule ‘supervised entertainments and generally caused chaos’. Although a Christmas tradition, they were not confined to this period and were also used during summer festivities. (source)

15th Century Deutsch Anonymous Painting of Henry VII Wikimedia Commons; Public Domain

Henry VII appointed both a Lord of Misrule and an Abbot of Unreason. In 1525, Henry VIII appointed one for himself and one for Princess Mary’s household and under Edward VI, one particular Lord of Misrule had ‘an entire retinue everything from an astronomer to a Master of Requests’ (Sim, 2009, Pg. 89).

Under Elizabeth Christmas once brought a chance of marriage because as her Lord of Misrule, Robert Dudley, proposed to her during the Christmas celebration. (source) Elizabeth declined Dudley’s proposal, and that’s another story in itself.

For Shakespeare and his contemporaries, Christmas, Twelfth Night, and the entire holiday seasons acted like a release of pressure for the society where they could breath a collective breath of freedom from the man laws that controlled behavior, dress, and food in society.

That’s it for this week here at Did Shakespeare, my name is Cassidy Cash, That Shakespeare Girl and I hope you learned something new about the bard.

I’ll see you next week!


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