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Christmas in Shakespeare's Day


By Kathryn Neves

We may not know many things about Shakespeare, but most scholars assume that he knew how to have a good time! Will Shakespeare seems like the kind of man to turn any occasion into a party—especially Christmas.

In fact, the Yuletide season was the most exciting time of year for most of Elizabeth’s England. They celebrated Christmas for twelve days; from the December 25 to the Feast of Fools on January 6. Here at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, we have collected a number of Tudor Christmas traditions that you may want to use to make your own Shakespearean Christmas!

The Yule Log

One of the most popular traditions at Christmastime was the burning of the Yule log. “A large log would be selected in the forest on Christmas Eve, decorated with ribbons, dragged home and laid upon the hearth” (Ben Johnson, “A Tudor Christmas,” Historic UK). Then, the log would burn throughout all twelve days of Christmas. Making a yule log is easy; wrap and tie festive ribbon around a log of your choice, hot glue candles or cranberries or mistletoe as decoration, and you’ve got yourself your own traditional Yule log— to burn, or to use as a centerpiece.

The Kissing Bough

Today, we have the Christmas tradition of kissing a sweetheart underneath a sprig of mistletoe. This tradition actually dates back centuries; all the way to Elizabeth I, and even earlier. In Shakespeare’s time, one of the most popular Christmas decorations was called a kissing bough. This was essentially a wreath or a globe “woven from mistletoe, ash, hazel or willow, covered in evergreens . . . visitors would be embraced under the bough as a sign of goodwill” (James Hoare, “12 weird and wonderful Tudor Christmas traditions, from boy bishops to Plough Monday,” History Answers). If you want to make your own kissing bough, visit http://blog.english-heritage.org.uk/how-to-make-traditional-tudor-christmas-decorations/ .

Christmas Food

Everyone knows that the best part of Christmas is the food; this was no different in Shakespeare’s day. Feasts and suppers with family and loved ones were an important part of the Christmas holiday; from boar heads to pies to wassail, here are some of the best Elizabethan recipes to make this holiday season.

Elizabethan Mince Pies

Today when we think of mince pies, we think of sweet apples, raisins, and cinnamon. In Shakespeare’s day, though, the pies were full of mutton and beef and were a lot heartier than the pies we eat today. For a recipe, visit http://findingshakespeare.co.uk/a-shakespearean-christmas-with-traditional-minced-meat-pies.

Elizabethan Sweets

Sweet candies, or as the Tudors called them, “sweetmeats,” were an important part of an Elizabethan Christmas. The sweetness of the food was used as a show of wealth; the course of sweets “was created more as a feast for the eyes than for the taste buds. . . . Increased imports of sugar from the West and East Indies, as well as just Morocco and Barbary, ensured the English aristocracy soon developed a sweet tooth” (Marta Patiño, “An Elizabethan Christmas Feast: Sugar, Spice, and All Things Nice,” TimeTravelBritain.Com). Recipes for marchpane, gingerbread, and leach of almonds can be found at http://www.timetravel-britain.com/articles/christmas/feast.shtml.

Elizabethan Wassail

Wassailing was an important part of the Shakespearean Christmas season. According to Ellen Castelow, “the lord of the manor would greet the assembled multitude with the toast waes hael, meaning ‘be well’ or ‘be in good health,’ to which his followers would reply drink hael, or ‘drink well’” (Ellen Castelow, “Wassailing,” Historic UK). Usually, the wassailers would serve the beverage in a large bowl and sing carols as they drank. A recipe for wassail can be found at http://blog.cleveland.com/pdextra/2009/12/elizabethan_yuletide_feaste_re.html.

One traditional wassailing carol goes as follows:

Wassail, wassail all over the town,
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown,
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree,
With the wassailing bowl we’ll drink to thee.

So here is to Cherry and to his right cheek
Pray God send our master a good piece of beef
And a good piece of beef that we may all see
With the wassailing bowl we’ll drink to thee.

To hear the full song, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JfncJavzoB8.

Christmas Carols

Christmas carols were perhaps the most popular way to celebrate the Christmas season. Along with wassailing carols, people in Elizabethan England would sing Christmas carols to celebrate together and enjoy the festivities of the season. “It’s original meaning is . . .  a dance with a song. . . . Carols flourished throughout Tudor times as a way to celebrate Christmas and to spread the story of the nativity” (Ben Johnson, “A Tudor Christmas”, Historic UK”).

Boar’s Head Carol

The Boar’s Head Carol was written sometime in the 1400s; it talks about a tradition of bringing in a boar’s head at the annual Yultetide feast. People sang it in Shakespeare’s day and even continue singing it today in some places.

The boar’s head in hand bear I,
Bedeck’d with bays and rosemary.
And I pray you, my masters, be merry
Quot estis in convivio.

Caput apri defero
Reddens laudes Domino.

The boar’s head, as I understand,
Is the rarest dish in all this land,
Which thus bedeck’d with a gay garland
Let us servire cantico.

Caput apri defero
Reddens laudes Domino.

Our steward hath provided this
In honour of the King of Bliss;
Which on this day to be served is
In Reginensi atrio.

Caput apri defero
Reddens laudes Domino.

The full song can be heard at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r7adETaOYiQ.

Coventry Carol

The Coventry Carol is one of the earliest in the English language; though it is a sadder Christmas carol, people in Elizabethan England sang it in nativity plays starting in the sixteenth century; It’s one of the Elizabethan carols that we continue singing even today.

Lullay, lullay, my little tiny child.
By by, lullay, lullay.
Lullay, lullay, my little tiny child.
By by, lullay, lullay.

Oh, sisters two, how may we do
For to preserve this day?
This poor youngling of whom we do sing
By by, lullay, lullay.

Herod the King in his raging
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight
All children young to slay.

Then woe is me, poor child, for thee,
And ever mourn and say
For thy parting, nor say nor sing,
By by, lullay, lullay.

Lullay, lullay, my little tiny child,
By by, lullay, lullay.

The song can be heard at  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_jIYyPOoEc8.

We hope you will try out some of these ideas, and then share your experiences via our  Facebook or Twitter feeds. Happy Holidays!


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