Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
This bird of dawning singeth all night long,
And then they say no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallowed, and so gracious, is that time.”
So said Shakespeare about Christmas in Hamlet, 1.1. And, in this quote, we get a perfect snapshot of that combination of Christian and pagan traditions which were and still are so prevalent in the celebration of this holiday. In Shakespeare’s day, celebrating the Saviour’s birth didn’t necessarily mean you were off the hook when it came to the charms of fairies and witches. For, just like Halloween, the celebration of Christmas on December 25th has its origins in pre-Christian festivals. In pagan Britain, the end of December marked the winter solstice, when the longest, darkest days of winter were past. Naturally, this required some partying and feasting. Later, when Christianity arrived on the scene, Easter was, in fact, the primary holiday of the year. It wasn’t until the fourth century that church officials decided to institute a holiday to celebrate the birth of Jesus. The only problem was the Bible does not specify any particular date as Jesus’ birthday. And, while sometime in spring would have made the most sense (given the whole shepherds watching their flocks thing), the end of December was chosen in order to absorb the pagan winter solstice activities. By the end of the sixth century, Christmas had made its way successfully to England, and the rest is history.
This holiday season is connected to winters of centuries ago though one especially unique link: this was the first time that a lunar eclipse has fallen on the winter solstice since 1638. In honor of this extraordinary event, I thought I’d promote some Shakespearean Christmas festivities. So, for those who are tired of the stresses of 21st century holiday shopping or listening to “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” for the umpteenth time, here are some alternatives.
Everything you need to know to have a very merry Shakespearean Christmas:
Old Saint Nick and Other Traditions: The original Santa Claus was really a monk named Nicholas, who was born in third century Turkey. Renowned for his kindness and generosity and for giving away all his worldly goods, Nicholas became a very popular saint, particularly during the Renaissance. However, the image of him as a rotund, jolly gift-giver didn’t come along until much later. Instead of mourning the lack of Santa, though, you could appoint a Lord of Misrule for the duration of the holiday. Duties of the Lord of Misrule include presiding over the revelries, handing out gifts, devising entertainments, and calling people silly names. The Yule log was another common tradition of the time. In Elizabethan England, the Christmas season ran for twelve days, from Christmas Eve on December 24th to Epiphany on January 6th. The Yule log was brought into the house on Christmas Eve and was meant to burn throughout all twelve days.
Decorations: Can you have a Christmas tree? Sure, why not. Long before people brought trees into their homes for the holidays, evergreens of all sorts were seen as reminders of the life that would come again in the spring. As a bonus, hanging evergreen boughs over your door was believed to keep away ghosts and evil spirits during the winter. Germans are believed to have chopped down the first Christmas trees in the sixteenth century, and legend has it that Protestant reformer Martin Luther was the first to add lighted candles to the tree, a pre-cursor to our modern Christmas lights. (If you try this, make sure to keep a fire extinguisher handy.) Although in Elizabethan England you would be well ahead of your time, since Christmas trees didn’t make their way there until the German Prince Albert married Queen Victoria in 1840.
Christmas Revels: Favorite activities, which haven’t changed much over the years, included feasting, dancing, game playing, and storytelling. You could play the slightly harrowing game of “snapdragon,” which involves taking turns picking raisins out of a dish of flaming brandy and popping them in your mouth. And then, of course, there’s wassailing. The word “wassail” comes from the Saxon “wachs heil,” meaning “I give you health.” In towns and villages across England, groups would go from house to house singing songs and carrying empty cups which the master of the house was meant to fill with spiced ale, along with providing snacks such as cakes and cheese. If you wish to revive this tradition, some Elizabethan carols you could sing include the ultimate wassailing song, “Here We Come A-Wassailing.” Others which might be familiar to the modern listener are “I Saw Three Ships” (the ships in this traditional English folk song refer to the vessels bearing the supposed skulls of the three wise men to a cathedral in Cologne), “The Twelve Days of Christmas” (legend has it that this song was written for parents to pass on Catholic symbols to their children after Henry VIII supplanted Catholicism with the Church of England), and “The Holly and the Ivy” (both of which commonly festooned Elizabethan houses at Christmastime).
Refreshments: A mouthwatering picture of what graced the Elizabethan Christmastime table may be seen in Thomas Tusser’s 500 Points of Husbandry, published in 1573:
“Good husband and huswife, now chiefly be glad,
Things handsome to have, as they ought to be had.
They both do provide, against Christmas do come,
To welcome their neighbors, good cheer to have some.
Good bread and good drink, a good fire in the hall,
Brawn, pudding, and souse, and good mustard withal.
Beef, mutton, and pork, and good pies of the best,
Pig, veal, goose, and capon, and turkey well drest,
Cheese, apples and nuts, and good carols to hear,
As then in the country is counted good cheer.
What cost to good husband, is any of this?
Good household provision only it is:
Of other the like, I do leave out a many,
That costeth the husband never a penny.”
To try some of these recipes yourself, consult HistoricalFoods, which is quickly becoming one of my favorite websites. They have a recipe for that British Christmas staple, plum pudding, as well as one for authentic wassail.