What has Shakespeare to do with Christmas? He only mentions it twice by name, and then only in passing. It’s clear from the name that Twelfth Night takes place during the Christmas holidays, but nothing in the play itself connects the behavior of Sir Toby and his friends to a particular holiday, at least not to us today. Yet of all the paths that lead to our present celebration of Christmas, the one forged by Shakespeare is the widest and surest, leading as it did through the barren desert of the puritan Reformation to give back to the English, not the feudal style of merry-making, but through his creation of the London Stage, the joys of Theater and all that has developed from it, school plays and amateur theatricals, films and television. While the Stage began as a compensation for the loss of the old processions, it shows its origins through the furnishings of many of his plays.
No more cakes and ale
The puritans who represented the more extreme beliefs that were brought to England in the 1540s with the Swiss Reformation did not condone the kind of merry-making that had always been associated with Christmas and the period after it leading up to Lent. With their insistence on a lifestyle and a form of worship that adhered to what they believed came directly from the Bible, they regarded all festivity as evidence of papistical excess, a backsliding into the evils of Sodom and Gomorrah, the worship of Baal, of witchcraft, sorcery. Following Calvin, the reformers eliminated all but four of the scores of feast days associated with the Catholic saints. While Christmas was one of the four, it was a Christmas sadly bereft of its pagan trimmings––no decorating of trees, no burning of yule logs, no St. Nicholas, no mistletoe, no wassail bowl, no filling the halls with boughs of holly––no fa la la la la.
The church itself, once their beautiful and beloved halfway house to Heaven, was no longer festive. Painted walls were whitewashed over. The gorgeously carved rood screens and statues of the saints were broken up and burnt in bonfires in the streets. The stained glass windows that portrayed the lives of the saints were smashed to smithereens. The gold and silver candelabra were appropriated or stolen; the use of candles for anything but necessary light was denied. The raised altar was replaced by a plain table in the center of the nave. Priests were not allowed to wear anything but black. Processions were forbidden.
Difficult as this was to bear throughout the year, it was hardest of all during the holiday period that included Christmas, for centuries the major moment when the laboring classes got a much-needed break from the year-round struggle to wrest sustenance from the soil and the sea. Most of northern Europe was frozen from mid-November through mid-March. Forced indoors, farmers and fishermen spent the winter months mending gear, visiting friends and relatives, eating, drinking, dancing and singing––in other words, making merry. Beloved traditions reflected origins in Stone Age rituals, in particular the processions that circled through the parish, from and back to the church again: mumming and disguising, the Boy Bishop, the Hobby Horse, the Morris Dancers, the Green Man––all forbidden. Bishops who sided with their parishoners ended up in the Tower.
Although the rural districts far from London were better able to keep some of the old antics, Londoners, closely watched by a series of die-hard puritan Mayors, could not get away with anything that hinted at a return to making merry. When the boy king’s death in 1553 put his Catholic sister on the throne there was a brief reprieve. But with Elizabeth’s coronation in 1559, the reformers returning from their exile stepped directly into important political positions, their determination to see reform strengthened by having spent the years of Mary’s reign in Frankfurt, Strasburg or Geneva, listening to the most adamant creators of the Protestant Reformation.
An Elizabethan Christmas
When it came to Christmas and other holidays, Queen Elizabeth was in something of a hard place. She owed her throne to the reformers, yet personally she was drawn to the Old Faith and its lavish celebrations, in particular music and dancing. She was also bound to provide a festive atmosphere for the visitors and ambassadors from countries that still kept holidays in the old style. A compromise was achieved early in her reign by switching from the expensive masques that had been the Court’s version of mumming and disguising to the more sedate, seated observation of holiday plays, interspersed with musical interludes, mostly provided by members of her staff and paid for by her courtiers. The acting and singing were done by the boy choristers who sang for her and her entourage in the palace chapel during devotions, then entertained on a dais in the dining hall , the instrumental music provided by her staff of England’s most accomplished musicians. With costumes provided by the Revels department, it was all done on the cheap.
All elements of this entertainment came from within the Court and its circle of providers. Where then did the plots and characters, the text of the plays come from? Though plays consist of nothing but talk, and talk is cheap, these plays were not all that easy to write. They had to be entertaining without overstepping the bounds of Court etiquette or offending a laughter-loving but hypersensitive female monarch. Plays require conflict to be interesting, but for these plays the conflict could not reflect the grim religious and political issues that were what she dealt with day to day. They had to be funny without being bawdy. In short, to succeed, they had to be written by someone aware of what would please and what would not, in other words, an intelligent and sensitive Court insider.
Unfortunately the strictures of the Reformation had left the English literary community at one of the lowest points in its history. Known to historians as “the drab era,” the poetry was crabbed and dense, its themes morose and depressing. This was not surprising considering that the Reformation tended to see poets (playwrights were called poets) as liars, and poetry (anything that qualified as imaginative literature) as an instrument of the Devil. As with most Renaissance courts, all good courtiers wrote poetry just as they played the lute or virginals and could sight-sing complex madrigals, but these were pastimes and unfortunately writing witty plays requires rather more than an hour or two snatched from running at the ring or playing Primero.
Along came Shakespeare
Of course he wasn’t known as Shakespeare then, in fact he wasn’t “known” at all. He was a member of one of the Court coteries that prided itself on its writing, but which member wasn’t always clear, except within the coterie itself. Fearful that being labeled a poet would mean loss of any hope of advancement, at least one gifted young writer openly condemned it as a “toy,” vowing to give it up. But the youth who would someday be published as Shakespeare had that ineffable gift that time and again meets the moment with just the right stuff. Protected by his high estate from the slurs of the less able, he began providing the kind of dramatically exciting and witty entertainment for the winter holidays at Court that would someday make it one of the most famous in Europe.
The talented boys who performed these plays came from the middling levels of society. Usually discovered by their grammar school teachers, they were brought to Court or to Paul’s Cathedral, given the equivalent of a basic grammar school education, and trained to work with her musical consorts, singing the complex works of composers like William Byrd so that the Queen and her entourage could move through the day accompanied by music, as we do today by means of ipods and radios.
Clever lads, the boys easily memorized the lines given them to perform these early comedies. Enchanted by their little satin suits and mammoth ruffs as they trilled the witty lines that they themselves may not have fully understood, they would continue to be the favorite entertainers of the childless Queen throughout her reign. However, since she was also a tightwad with everyone but her male companion of the moment, she and her ministers looked aside when the boys and their masters would continue to perform a play written for a Court holiday in the halls of wealthy householders whose donations helped to defray the cost of the boys’ upkeep.
Thus it was that the great breakthrough occured. What began as a few holiday plays in the London homes of the wealthy spread, bit by bit, to more public venues like the little stage at Paul’s Cathedral where the choristers trained to sing the Service were allowed to entertain the public during the holidays. There’s nothing more exciting for a theater company and its patrons than an enthusiastic audience, so the temptation to go commercial was hard for these financially struggling music masters to resist. That, plus the fact that Londoners were desperate for entertainment, plus the most important fact of all, that the plays were so good––so much better than the silly antics that in former years had been provided by amateurs recruited from the City guilds to provide holiday entertainment for the City.
Birth of the London Stage
Starved by the Reformation for the merriment they craved, the London public had begun to frequent the theater inns in ever-increasing numbers. City inns built on a square, surrounded on three sides by two or three stories of rooms accessed by an open passage that faced the central courtyard, were able to show plays performed on the second level overlooking the courtyard. Performances at the inns lasted through the winter holidays, ending with the beginning of Lent, and beginning again in June. By adding this to travelling on the circuit to the bigger towns, actors began to get the kind of work that they could count on throughout most of the year.
Seeing this, patrons of the major companies, some of them members of the Queen’s Privy Council, began to plan how to take advantage of this growing public audience and the growing mastery of their acting companies. Politicians at heart, they saw the advantage of going with the flow, working it to their own advantage. The Church on the other hand hated it, and fought the growth of the London Stage with every weapon it could muster, but it had only itself to blame for denying its parishoners their beloved season of good cheer.
In 1575, royal permission was finally granted to the young lord with the golden pen to travel to France and Italy where he could discover methods of theater production along with ways that it might work for, not against, Authority. Persuaded by the Queen’s Lord Chamberlain, the Earl of Sussex, Elizabeth and her chief minister, Lord Burghley, saw an advantage in promoting a theater that could be monitored and controlled as opposed to fighting the one that was growing helter skelter without their consent. Within days of the young lord’s return in 1576 the first purpose-built year-round commercial stage began rising on a well-travelled road just outside the City in an ancient Liberty where the puritanical City fathers had no control. That summer the adult company that gathered around the builder of the theater, James Burbage, began entertaining the public, two to three thousand at a sitting. And whose plays do you think they were performing?
Six months later, a little stage in a school created to train the Children of the Queen’s Chapel in their holiday entertainments for the Court opened in the old Revels offices in the Liberty of Blackfriars, also outside City control, at the edge of the most important audience in England, the lawyers and parliamentarians who spent their days in or near the law courts of Whitehall in what today is known as London’s West End. And whose plays do you think the boys were performing there? And possibly also––occasionally, advertised only to a select few through word of mouth––by Burbage’s adults.
Thus it was that the youth with the gifted pen whose plays would someday be published under the name Shakespeare, began gathering the audiences that would make the London Stage the wonder of the western world, spreading his magic first to Germany, then to all of Europe, then to the world. Born from the Queen’s need for cheap entertainment at the winter holidays, “speaking daggers” on government policy at the little stage at Blackfriars to the members of parliament during their Christmas break, Shakespeare brought to a nation starved for happiness in the winter holidays the London Stage and with it the English Literary Renaissance.
That Shakespeare understood and rebelled against the Reformation’s idea of what constituted good writing is clear from Oxford’s prologues to Clerke’s Latin translation of Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano (The Courtier) and to Bedingfield’s Cardanus Comforte. The ideal held out for writers by the Reform community was Thomas Hoby’s English translation of Castiglione’s Courtier. Try reading a bit of it, or something by George Turburville, and you’ll see what Oxford was confronted with by his contemporaries as he came of age. Luckily he had been trained to a higher level by his tutor, Sir Thomas Smith. Luckier yet he had that adventuresomeness of spirit that allowed him to fly free, not only of the turgid style of his contemporaries, but of the ancient styles learned at his tutor’s knee, ever seeking a fresher vision, a more direct and immediate means of communication.
For O, for O, the hobby horse is forgot!
Did Shakespeare see his career as saving Christmas and all holidays for a people beaten into submission by a heartless, sin-obsessed Authority? Perhaps not, but it seems likely that among the various forces that drove him over the years, one was the need to save for posterity some of what was good about the feudal culture that was under such severe attack by the Reformation, if not merry-making specifically, then the kind of hospitality, the noblesse oblige, that saw to it that widows and orphans were not forgotten, that everyone shared in the holiday, no matter how poor, when the true spirit of Christ, that “inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” was not just cold words preached from a lofty pulpit, but actively lived at all the major turning points of the year.
In the upper Thames valley, where as a boy he had lived with Smith during Mary’s reign, the wild antics of the Hobby Horse and the Green Man could still have been seen in nearby towns and villages on Shrove Tuesday, May Day and Midsummer’s Eve. Before Hamlet sits to watch the play that will catch the conscience of the King, his otherwise pointless cry, “For O, the hobby horse is forgot” must refer to the role of the Hobby Horse, some rural Robin Hood dressed in a horse costume, whose joyous duty it was to whinny as he charged at the homes and businesses of local evil-doers (bullies, wife-beaters, malicious gossips, avaricious money-lenders, loose women) as the rowdy procession passed them, to roars from the jeering crowd. Was Hamlet using the play as in former times Oxford had seen when the Hobby Horse, given license by the ancient tradition, took the opportunity of the procession to humiliate persons whose behavior was causing trouble within the community?
As the provider for so many years of the plays that took the place of the ancient forms of public merry-making, it’s not surprising that many show their origins in the old holiday folkways. The sub-plot of Twelfth Night reflects what must have been a frequent situation during this time in many wealthy households, the battle between a widow’s overly rightous steward, and her old party dog of an uncle, with the jester, Feste––in Shakespeare’s position––caught between the two. As Sir Toby puts it to the “baffled” Malvolio, “Dost think because thou art virtuous there will be no more cakes and ale?” The Merry Wives’ torments of Falstaff end with what Oxford must have seen as a child in the villages in and around the Forest of Windsor near where he lived with Smith, a holiday ritual associated with the running of the stag, a relic of England’s Celtic origins. That Shakespeare loved these holiday rascals is clear from how often they appear on stage and how long they stay there. Falstaff and Sir Toby, if not based on the same individual, are certainly cut from the same cloth, as is Mine Host, and Bottom with his merry shout: “Where are these lads! Where are these hearts!”
With his constant focus on love, many of the ancient traditions touched on by Shakespeare were courting rituals. In As You Like It, the love poems Orlando pins on branches of trees would seem to reflect a courting tradition, though on what occasion remains a mystery, possibly St. Valentine’s Day. The forest adventures of the couples in A Midsummer Night’s Dream reflect a similar tradition from ancient celebrations of May Day when girls would go into the wooded meadows alone, ostensibly to gather flowers for “Mary’s Day,” whence they would be pursued by the young men of the village. This tender means of providing courting couples with an opportunity to meet privately in a romantic spring setting, was of course abhored and forbidden by the reformers, represented in the play by one of the fathers. Other Reformation figures include Malvolio and Angelo from Measure for Measure. Angelo’s message seems to be that it’s better to let the Old Nick come out in company for a few weeks a year than to keep it bottled up for years, finally to explode into some gross indecency with its aftermath of remorse.
True to the spirit of the masque, of the mumming and disguising that accompanied not only Christmas, but several of the ancient festivals, the great English Lord of the Dance hid his identity from the Blatant Beast, Spenser’s personalization of the Reformation, behind a sober mask contributed by a “prudent” burgher from the midlands, until his Book of Gladness, published in 1623 by the patrons who loved and cherished his work, spread it throughout England and from there to all the nations of the world.
Passing the plate
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3 thoughts on “How Shakespeare saved Christmas”
Thank you. Merry Christmas.
Stephanie – this is so fascinating – thank you. Having been raised in England I remember so many remnants of the early celebrations that must have leaked through that early Puritan shield. I had no idea some had their beginnings in Roman Catholic celebrations. Since I’ve lived in California for a number of years I’m not sure if these celebrations continue today but we certainly looked forward to them in bygone times.
May Day, when a May Queen and her attendants were chosen from each Primary (elementary) school and Sunday school paraded through each village and town as the climax to Whitweek. At the end of the parade the May Queen would be crowned and children would dance around the may pole.
Likewise the Rose Queen celebrations would occur during the summer where you’d often find the Green Man and jesters.
During Christmas there were Christmas Pantomimes where well-known stories were portrayed with a twist. Traditionally the cast of characters included a lovesick male – (who was always a woman dressed as a man,) a pretty girl – the object of his affection, her mother who was always a man dressed as a woman, a jester type character usually an old man and a horse (two men)
On Shrove Tuesday or Rag Day the main celebration was one brought on by students from the local university who would parade through town parodying political figures with wonderful humor (they would ‘rag’ on these figures). They would distribute a magazine called Ragrag and collect funds for charities while they were at it.
So all in all I suppose the Puritans didn’t completely douse those old traditions.
Thanks for all the research – wonderful to learn of our roots as much as Shakespeare’s!
Vestiges of the old traditions certainly remain. Weddings contain a number of them, so do Easter and Halloween. No doubt there was a great deal of meaningless nonsense in what went on before the Reformation that it swept away, the point is that it went to extremes, bloody extremes in some cases. That this was the period when Shakespeare was coming of age is one of those things that the academics never seem to notice, or if they do, they don’t keep it in mind in their accounts of how the English Renaissance came into being, how it was so different in nature from those of Italy or France.
Folklorists have been helpful over the recent past in providing links to the origins of some of these traditions. Perhaps because of this we are seeing much more interest around the world in reviving these ancient traditions, however puzzling their meaning, as a way of returning to a connection, partly to the past, but also as an immediate response to the pulse of nature throughout the seasons of the year.