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Across all of Shakespeare’s work (and there’s a lot of it) ‘Christmas’ only gets a mention a total of 3 times, twice in Loves Labors Lost and Once in Taming of The Shrew. Whilst our idea of Christmas may be a little different to what Shakespeare got up to, the Jacobeans and Elizabethans definitely knew how to have festive fun!
Rather than having one big blow out of the 25th, there was much bigger emphasis placed on the 12 days of Christmas lasting from the 25th of December till the 6th of January. These 12 days were filled with games, music and (if you were particularly fortunate) an excess of food and drink, which by all accounts sounds a lot like our modern-day Christmas.
Author Thomas Middleton recalls in his book Father Hubbard’s Tales (1604) a number of Christmas activities such as dancing, jigs, caroling and a very early iteration of Blind Man’s Bluff. Interestingly, a game called ‘hot cockles’ where a blindfolded player is repeatedly struck until the blindfolded player could guess who delt the blows has fallen off the Christmas party game roster which is a shame.
Food wise, it was all about good natured excess. If you had the cash, you were expected to provide entertainment and food to those who were less fortunate. Estate owners would provide their tenants with a feast on at least 1 of the 12 days which might include meat such as woodcock, turkey and swan.
Christmas trees weren’t really the thing until the 19th century when Prince Albert popularised the ‘modern tree’ but homes were still decorated. People would collect leaves like holm, ivy and bay that were still green during the Winter months and adorn their homes in the foliage.
Presiding over all of these activities would be ‘The Lord of Misrule’. This individual would be appointed to act as a clownish figure and was responsible for the entertainments in wealthy households, court and homely settings too. Drinking, games and revelry was their prerogative. The Lord of Misrule was employed to simply make sure that everyone was having a good time.
Records show that The Lord Chamberlains Men (the theatre company ‘ar Will was part of) were invited by King James 1st Court to perform for him many times at Hampton Court over the Christmas period. The plays performed included The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Comedy of Errors, Measure for Measure and Love’s Labour’s Lost.
They played for him multiple times, 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).
Maybe Shakespeare was feasting on swan after a stellar performance at King James’ Court. Maybe he and The Lord Chamberlains Men even played a game of hot cockles before decorating their homes with the verdant leaves that lay outside.
Christmas is about tradition, and although here at Shakespeare North we haven’t been around long enough to create any traditions yet, we know how to celebrate the festive season! Why not pop in over the holidays to celebrate Christmas with Shakespeare North, catch our Christmas production The Wind in The Willows or cosy up to watch one of our Festive Film Screenings in The Studio. Maybe grab a mince pie and mulled wine whilst you’re here and make sure to swing by our gift shop for some last minute stocking fillers!