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A Shakespearian Christmas

Sofia Wood

Christmastime in ‘the days of yore’ (in this case, the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras) was quite different to the way that we celebrate it now.

In the 1500s/1600s, it was less about actual Christmas Day and more focused on the 12 days of Christmas, which ranges from December 25th until January 6th. These 12 days were filled to the brim with all kinds of social activity, which would be recognisable as being part of our own Christmas revels, such as carol singing (like Gaudete, but not the Steeleye Span version), dancing and games. There was one game that they played, “Hoodman’s Blind”, which is likely to be an ancestor of our “Blind Man’s Buff”. Another activity the Elizabethans and Jacobeans enjoyed was ‘wassailing’, which involved sharing a bowl of hot spiced cider, which is an outdated festivity now but would probably still be appreciated today. They also enjoyed decking the halls with decorations as we do, except theirs were a lot greener than the ones we favour today. They would collect and decorate with holm, ivy and bay – basically any leaf that was still green in the Winter season. Feasting has also remained a large part of Christmastime festivities, with wealthier land owners being expected to provide their tenants with a feast on at least one of the 12 days of festivities. Elizabethan and Jacobean festive food was likely to have included things such as woodcock, turkey and swan, with extra bread and beer for those who had come to the house unbidden.

Thomas Tusser described such a 16th century Christmas in his poem ‘Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry’ (1557), the following stanza representing all of the traditions listed above:

At Christmas we banquet, the rich with the poor,
Who then (but the miser) but openeth the door?
At Christmas of Christ many carols we sing,
And give many gifts in the joy of the King.

The Lord of Misrule would preside over the fun and games mentioned above. This clownish figure would be responsible for the organisation of entertainment in wealthy households, court, and also more homely settings too. The Lord of Misrule also represented the temporary abandonment of social order that was in place during the festivities – it was this loss of social boundaries that signalled that this was a time for fun.

When it came to Royalty, however, such entertainments were taken up to the next level entirely, as the Monarch would have the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later known as the King’s Men after King James I’s patronage of them in 1603) come to Court and perform for them. As this was the Company Shakespeare most often wrote for, this meant that many of the plays performed for these Monarchs at Christmastime were classics written by Stratford’s own Bard.

A Pleasant Conceited Comedie called Loves labors lost
A Pleasant Conceited Comedie called Loves labors lost (1598)

Queen Elizabeth I’s Court

There are records of the Lord Chamberlain’s Company performing before the Queen at Greenwich Palace in 1594 – which plays, though, is unknown.

It is known, though, that the Company performed Love’s Labour’s Lost in 1597 at Whitehall Palace. We know this because of a printed version that exists of this play, as it details when and who it was performed for on the title page.

King James I’s Court

It is also known that that King James invited the Company to perform for him many times at Hampton Court over the Christmas period, the list below specifying which plays were to be performed on which days, it including The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Comedy of Errors, Measure for Measure and Love’s Labour’s Lost.

Hampton Court List of Plays
List of plays performed at Hampton Court

They played for him time and time again, other performances from different years being:

1. Midsummer Night’s Dream - 1603 on New Year’s Day, Hampton Court.
2. Measure for Measure – 1603 on Boxing Day, Hampton Court.
3. King Lear- 1606 on Boxing Day
4. Twelfth Night - Candlemas (Feb 2nd 1602)
5. Twelfth Night - 1618 and 1619 (location unknown).

The Collections at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust house some evidence of these performances – the picture below is of a printed version of King Lear as played to King James on St Stephens night (Boxing Day) during their Christmas holidays, performed at Whitehall, performance dated 1608.

King Lear 1608
83011706: M. VVilliam Shake-speare, his true chronicle history of the life and death of King Lear, and his three daughters.

None of these plays are especially Christmassy. The closest they come to being literally about Christmas is through Twelfth Night. This is evident not only through the name of the play (which links to the twelfth night of the old Christmas traditions), but also via the mischief making and “Misrule” throughout it. This mischief is most memorable in the trick played on poor Malvolio, which ended with him dressed in ridiculous yellow, cross-gartered stockings. However, the Shakespeare plays mentioned above have ended up becoming Christmassy through association with this festive time of year, with some of these plays still performed at Christmas to this day. The RSC takes care to do this, performing Twelfth Night last year and in this Christmas season putting on The Comedy of Errors and The Merry Wives of Windsor, all plays which were performed in the 1600s before King James I.

Twelfth Night Programme
Last year’s Twelfth Night (my programme).

Just as those royals had their theatre traditions at Christmas, so do we. Pantomimes aside, plays that we associate with Christmas include stage adaptations of A Christmas Carol, which is being performed this Christmastime at the RSC. Kenneth Branagh even attempted to make his 1987 production of Twelfth Night more Christmassy by giving it a Christmas Carol atmosphere. This has become a traditional Christmas story for us as it matches many of the traditions we abide by today. Our traditions and the ones featured in Charles Dickens’s story are both Victorian, an example of which being Christmas trees. Another play that has become associated with Christmas is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which has also been performed many times at Stratford’s RSC. This story of a land of Winter without Christmas is a more recent Christmas tradition as the C.S. Lewis story that it is based on was published in 1950, only 68 years ago.

And with that, I draw this blog post to a close and hope that everyone manages to set aside some time from rockin’ around the Christmas tree to enjoy some kind of festive performance in the spirit of all of these Christmases past, as this is the season to be jolly. So, in the words of a famous man riding a magical reindeer drawn sleigh, “A Merry Christmas to all, and to all a goodnight!”