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DID SHAKESPEARE CELEBRATE CHRISTMAS?

PEOPLE WHO KEEP track of such things identify only three references to Christmas in all of Shakespeare’s plays. On the other hand, the Bard’s Christmas season lasted longer than ours. Here are tidbits on this and other Elizabethan holidays gleaned from a variety of sources.

The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (2 Volume Set), Oxford University Press, 1971.

Holiday; Holy Day. The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, 1971, says that “holiday” originally meant a holy day and came from the Old English hólidæg. Chaucer spelled it haleday in his Middle English “The Miller’s Tale” of The Canterbury Tales. By Shakespeare’s  time, Modern English had begun to make a distinction between holy day, one of consecration, and holiday, a day off.  

William Shakespeare, 1564–1616.

Shakespeare’s Specific Three Christmases. Lee Jamieson describes “Shakespeare’s New Year and Christmas Quotes,” at the ThoughtCo. website. For example, in Love’s Labour’s Lost, Act I Scene 1, Shakespeare has Biron liken two Elizabethan holidays, Christmas and May Day: “At Christmas I no more desire a rose/Than snow in May’s new-fangled mirth;” 

May Day, the first of May, was celebrated with villagers choosing a Queen of the May and dancing around the May Pole.

Biron, left, confronts Costard, a clown. Illustration by Gordon Browne in Henry Irving’s Shakespeare, 1888.

Later in the same play, Act V Scene 2, Biron says, “I see the trick on’t: here was a consent/Knowing aforehand of our merriment,/To dash it like a Christmas comedy.”

In The Taming of the Shrew, Induction Scene 2, Christopher Sly, a tinker, says, “Marry, I will; let them play it. Is not a comonty [he means “comedy”] a Christmas gambold [“gambol,” a dance] or a tumbling-trick?” 

“What! Would you make me mad! Am not I Christopher Sly?” The Taming of the Shrew, Induction Scene 2. 

Jamieson asks whether Shakespeare wasn’t a bit of a Scrooge: “In Shakespeare’s time, Christmas simply wasn’t celebrated in the same way as it is today. It was 200 years after the death of Shakespeare that Christmas was popularized in England, thanks to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert importing many German Christmas traditions. Our modern concept of Christmas is immortalized in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol from that time. So, in many ways, Shakespeare was a Scrooge after all.”

Lady Day, March 25. Shakespeare certainly would have noted Lady Day, March 25. Ancient History Encyclopedia notes that Lady Day got its name from the Annunciation of Mary (when Angel Gabriel told her of God’s plan for her) and was “considered the first day of the calendar year in England.”

 We could be traditionalists and wait until Lady Day to change to 2021, but I will be glad to date checks “/21,” instead of the forgery-proof “/2020.” Yes, 2020 has been a year of suspicion. 

Two Other Less Well Known Elizabethan Holidays. Lammas Day is August 1. It was time for a “Loaf-mass,” celebrating the first wheat harvest of the year.

Plough Monday, the first Monday after Twelfth Night, had a straightforward meaning: It was “back to work” day. The Elizabethan Christmas season began with Advent, the Sunday nearest November 30, Saint Andrew’s Day, through the Twelve Days of Christmas, from December 25 to Twelfth Night, the evening of January 5, which celebrates the visitation of the Magi. 

The Adoration of the Magi, a fresco by Giotto di Bondone.

Another Shakespeare Hit? Aha. Is Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night a Christmas play? 

Not really. As noted in Wikipedia, “Twelfth Night, or What You Will is … believed to have been written around 1601–1602 as a Twelfth Night entertainment for the close of the Christmas season.” Its plot has nothing to do with the holiday.

SimanaitisSays Holiday Hiatus. Wife Dottie and I will observe something of an abbreviated Elizabethan tradition with a holiday hiatus beginning tomorrow, Christmas Day, through January 1, 2021.

Do have a Merry Christmas and Joyous New Year. ds  

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2020

4 comments on “DID SHAKESPEARE CELEBRATE CHRISTMAS?

  1. Mark W
    December 24, 2020

    Enjoy your time off, and thanks for all your efforts to make the world a better (and wiser) place. Maybe ‘21 will be more conducive to that effort!

  2. simanaitissays
    December 24, 2020

    Thanks, Mark, for your kind words.

  3. phil ford
    December 24, 2020

    Thanks for your educational and entertaining essays throughout the year. Especially this year. I’ll strive to keep my mind occupied until you resume your entries! 😎

    • simanaitissays
      December 25, 2020

      Thanks, Phil, for your kind words. I suspect our holiday hiatus will be interspirsed with occasional writing. (It’s entertaining….)

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