Well, Christmas is almost here; soon many of us will be traveling home to celebrate the holidays with our families, enjoying parties, presents, carols, and decorations. However, our modern traditions weren’t always the norm for people who celebrate Christmas. In the interest of historical curiosity, we here at Shakespearean Student would like to talk a little bit about how William Shakespeare might’ve celebrated Christmas!
As with everything in Shakespeare’s life, many times scholars have nothing but “what if’s” to go on, because few records exist, there were no photos from the period, and very few documents survive related to Shakespeare. He also kept no journals or diaries to record what his life might’ve been like. However, based in the holiday traditions of England that have lingered on to this day, we can surmise what Christmas might’ve been like in the late 16th century.
Part 1: Stratford
Shakespeare was born in 1564, in the town of Stratford-Upon-Avon in the county of Warwickshire England. As I mentioned earlier, Shakespeare would not have known many of our modern Christmas traditions. The Christmas Tree as we know it didn’t come into being until Queen Victoria’s reign, (and she certainly didn’t light hers with electric lights). Victoria also invented the idea of putting presents under the tree. I’m not an expert on Christmas, but my research would indicate that probably Elizabethans like Shakespeare didn’t even give out presents on Christmas Day! Instead, in country towns like Stratford in Tudor times, Christmas was a time of feasting, singing, caroling, and theatre!
The Christmas season in Shakespeare’s day usually extended from Christmas Eve to the twelfth night after Christmas also known as Twelfth Night or Epithany. Common people usually decorated their homes with holly and ivy, and celebrated Christmas Eve by lighting their homes with candles and by burning the Yule log, an ancient tradition dating back over 1,000 years when the Vikings controlled most of England. It was a symbol of light and warmth in the darkest time of the year.
Roast goose was a staple of the common man’s feast at Christmas. In 1588, Queen Elizabeth commanded the whole country to consume geese to commemorate England’s victory over the Spanish Armada. Other traditional fare included plum porridge, beer or ale, and the most celebrated Christmas beverage of all: Wassail!
The old tradition of caroling comes from an ancient pagan holiday tradition of showing charity to the poor at the winter solstice. People would go door to door asking for alms and occasionally a warm beverage. This ancient practice evolved into caroling and Wasailing!
The word “wassail” is an old Celtic word that means “lambswool,” it refers to the fact that the drink is covered with a thin foam that looks kind of like the wool of a sheep. It is also derived from the Anglo-Saxon “wassail,” which means “be in health,” so it is simultaneously a drink, a toast, and an explanation of what the drink looks like.
Like our modern-day caroling, people would sing and dance going door to door asking for a traditional glass of wassail or a mince pie. A mince pie is a traditional meat pie that is often filled with 12 different ingredients to symbolize the 12 days of Christmas.
Mince pies were popular with both peasants and kings, and contains both fruit and different types of meat including rabbit chicken duck and hare.
Wasailing also has its roots in ancient pagan holidays and that’s why it’s often accompanied with a traditional Morris dance, where the dancers are waving handkerchiefs, knocking sticks together and dancing with brightly colored ribbons. This was a great tradition back in the small towns and shires of England and continues to this very day. Below you’ll find a video where you can make some wassail yourself! I Just a note that in this recipe, the cook has left out the alcohol and has also left out the egg which is necessary to create the foamy lambswool. Nonetheless I think it’s a very good recipe and I welcome you to try it for yourself.
As the mayor’s son, young William had a VIP pass to see all traveling actors who came to town. Shakespeare’s dad would’ve decided who got to perform at the guild halls and local inns, so he and his son would’ve watched private performances of all the shows first. After that, John Shakespeare decided who got to perform, and who would be sent away. In addition to professional troupes at Christmas, craftsmen in Will’s hometown people in Warwickshire would come together and put on a show! These amateur dramatic pieces were known as Mystery Plays.
Mystery Plays got their name from the old meaning of mystery: a trade or skill. Much like modern nativity plays or community theaters, every year all the craftsmen from the town would put on a series of short shows derived from Bible stories at Christmas time, and showcase their crafts as well as their acting talents. For example the goldsmiths were in charge of the Three Wise Men story.
We know that Shakespeare liked these plays because he refers to one in particular many, many times: The play of King Herod. in the Bible, Herod The Great is fearful of the baby Jesus and sends his soldiers to kill any young baby that they can find in the city of Jerusalem. Very often when Shakespeare refers to any of his villainous characters he describes them as Herod-like.
The Mysteries were printed during Shakespeare’s lifetime and people in York, Coventry, and Wakefield England still perform them today! Here’s a video of a little girl who performed in the York Mystery play last year:
I hope you enjoyed this little sojourn into the ancient traditions of the common folk back in Shakespeare’s England. This coming week, I’ll talk about how the queen and court celebrated the Yuletide.
Till next time!
-The Shakespearean Student
- Historic UK: A Tudor Christmas: http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/A-Tudor-Christmas/
- Shakespeare Birthplace Trust: Christmas At Shakespeare’s Houses: http://www.shakespeare.org.uk/visit-the-houses/whats-on.html/christmas-holidays.html
- The Anne Bolyn Files: A Tudor Christmas: http://www.theanneboleynfiles.com/resources/tudor-life/tudor-christmas/
- Wassailing and Mumming: http://www.whychristmas.com/customs/wassailing.shtml