This December, our theatre has been filled with the sounds of Christmas music as our actors perform ASC’s version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Our production illustrates the Cratchit family having Christmas dinner, and you might wonder, as you sit in the Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse, how people in Shakespeare’s day celebrated Christmas. French scholar Francois Laroque wrote a very informative book, Shakespeare’s Festive World: Elizabethan Seasonal Entertainment and the Professional Stage, which explains how Shakespeare’s contemporaries celebrated Christmas. In the Elizabethan era, Christmas festivities often began on the twenty-first of December, Saint Thomas’ Day, which ushered in nearly four weeks of celebrations. The majority of the Christmas celebrations were held during the twelve days of Christmas, which began on Christmas day and extended to Epiphany on January sixth, and people enjoyed various celebrations on Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, and the eve of Epiphany.
Some traditions in the Elizabethan era were not that different from modern traditions. Before Christmas Eve, people decorated their homes with holly and ivy. Christmas trees did not gain popularity until the nineteenth century in England, but people in Shakespeare’s day brightened their houses for Christmas by burning a large piece of wood called a Yule log or Yule block. On Christmas Eve, people sung Christmas carols, which in the Elizabethan era included festival songs. Christmas Eve was a time to visit neighbors and join in village or communal celebrations. As people celebrated with their neighbors, girls brought a wassail-bowl, or a large jug of beer and roasted apples, to each house, and actors called mummers performed plays about Saint George or Old Father Christmas. The time between Christmas and Epiphany was filled with religious and secular celebrations.
Even Christmas songs from Shakespeare’s era were not that different than they are today. George Wither’s song “Christmas Carol,” written in 1602 encourages merriment and holiday cheer:
“So, now is come our joyfulst feast;
Let every man be jolly;
Each room with ivy leaves is drest,
And every post with holly.
Though some churls at our mirth repine,
Round your foreheads garlands twine;
Drown sorrow in a cup of wine,
And let us all be merry.
Now, all our neighbours’ chimnies smoke
And Christmas blocks are burning...” (Laroque 149).
Submitted by Samantha Smith