Medieval & Early Modern History Story

A Shakespeare Christmas

  From mistletoe to Yule logs, to feasting and pantomimes, we take a look at the Christmas traditions we have inherited from 400 years ago

3 minute read

A certain vision of ‘Merrie England’ seems to be alive and well at Christmas as we light candles and spice our wine with favourite early modern flavours like cinnamon and cloves. Mince pies and plum pudding capture an ancient style of fruit-and-suet sweetmeats, and we deck our homes in shedding branches of pine and holly.

How many of these modern traditions have roots in Shakespeare’s time? It turns out we can thank (or begrudge, for those Scrooges out there) the early modern period for many of the yuletide traditions we still perform – willingly or not – today.

Our modern sprig of mistletoe evolved from the Kissing Bough, a large wreath of ash and evergreen. Our Yule Log is a decadent chocolate cake that you’ll find in your local Tesco for under a fiver; Shakespeare’s would have been cut from the forest, decorated, and burned in the hearth for twelve days. And we would find a lot to recognise in the Elizabethan fondness for festive feasting with loved ones, even if we no longer serve boars’ heads and peacocks.

A large green Christmas tree sits on a wooden stage, with a wreath of holly hanging from the ceiling.

Wreath decorations in the Globe Theatre. Photographer: Claudia Conway.

With so many festive activities to enjoy, it is difficult not to jump the gun on festive preparation (even Mary Berry suggests you can start making your Christmas cake up to three months in advance for optimal brandy saturation). Of course, there are those who think that Christmas comes too early each year, but we have nothing on the early modern royal court: the Martinmas feast on 11 November ushered in forty days of pre-Christmas festivity (to say nothing of the remaining month of partying after New Year’s Day).

Was Shakespeare a Scrooge or a Kris Kringle? He mentions Christmas only three times in all his plays, and not in the most cheerful of ways. In the opening of The Taming of the Shrew, Sly asks dismissively if the player’s comedy will be ‘A Christmas gambold, or a tumbling trick?’ Sly might be disappointed to know that Christmas masques and pageants remained so loved by the English that they have managed to stick around for over 400 years, taking on a new life as the Christmas pantomimes we know today.

‘Was Shakespeare a Scrooge or a Kris Kringle? He mentions Christmas only three times in all his plays, and not in the most cheerful of ways.’

The cast prepare to bow as snow falls all around in the Globe Theatre.

Christmas at the (Snow) Globe, Globe Theatre, 2019. Photographer: Tristram Kenton

Perhaps the most important Christmas tradition that has been passed down from Elizabethan times, though, is the sense that the festive season is – or ought to be – for everyone, regardless of class or wealth. Labourers, who usually worked under state- and guild-set regulations from morning till night six days per week, were allowed time off to enjoy the Twelfth Night festivities. The queen also required her country gentry, who might otherwise have been tempted to hang around the city all holiday, to return to their countryside homes in time to provide their tenants and labourers with Christmas treats in the form of meals and sweets.

Christmas remains a symbol of hospitality and kindness, and hope for the year to come. At a time when many of us will feel the need for all of these qualities, we might also look back to the traditions of warmth and good living that characterised Christmases past.