What was Christmas like for Shakespeare?

Christmas in Shakespeare’s time wasn’t a particularly glamorous affair, and it was quite unlike the finely-decorated homes and glitzy German markets that we know today.

It should therefore come as no surprise that the word Christmas only appears a mere three times in Shakespeare’s First Folio, and the word Yule doesn’t appear at all. Likewise, in our comparative corpus of other plays from the Elizabethan period (EEBO: Early English Books Online), Yule appears a number of times, confirming that it was still being celebrated, but the few cases of Christmas are in rather odd contexts – one is a malapropism, and one refers to the game blind-man’s buff.

One might be quick to assume that Shakespeare was lacking festive spirit or that the plays simply didn’t encompass Christmas festivities, but the real reason is that Christmas as we know it did not fully develop until the 1840s and beyond. Before that time, Easter was the main Christian festival, with Christmas being a largely secondary celebration. Over the years, Christmas developed into a twelve-day festival which started on the 25th December, and culminated on the Twelfth Night.

The Twelfth Night of Christmas was when theatre was performed at the royal court. It was no coincidence that Shakespeare named his play in that regard. One might say that it was merely a practical title referring to when the play was intended to be performed.

The festive connotations that we now attribute to certain words were simply non-existent in the works of Shakespeare. Christmas as we know it would not arrive for another 300-or-so years until Queen Victoria and her husband Albert introduced the festivities from Germany. However, that isn’t to say that the words themselves did not exist.

The word bauble appears 6 times in Shakespeare’s First Folio, each in a different text, but not one of these instances refers to the shiny red objects that dangle from our trees. Indeed, quite the opposite – baubles around that time were insignificant toys, or mere pieces of rubbish. In any case, the word carries significantly negative connotations in its usage, quite unlike today.

In the play Cymbeline, Pisanio calls a letter a senseless bauble (III.2.20). Whilst Shakespeare would have used the word senseless to refer to an object that lacks sensation or feeling, its meaning is now very different. Far from referring to the letter as a foolish Christmas decoration, Pisanio is instead referring to a worthless object that lacks human sensation.

Whilst Shakespeare himself may not have recognised Christmas as a time for fun, food, and family – the team working on the Encyclopaedia of Shakespeare’s Language would like to wish all our readers a restful break, and a prosperous New Year.

About Mathew Gillings

PhD Linguistics student at Lancaster University.
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