Still got the tree up? Shakespeare would not have taken down his decorations on Twelfth Night...here's why.
When Shakespeare was born the festival of Christmas went beyond the twelve days we think of now. At this time of year we are working out whether we should have taken down our cards (a tradition started by the Victorians) and trees (not started by the Victorians...but probably brought over by Queen Charlotte around 1800) on the 5th or 6th of January, but party like a Tudor and Christmas can keep going for forty days until the Feast of Candlemas on 2nd February. Robert Herrick, the 17th Century poet, wrote a poem called a "Ceremony Upon Candlemas Eve" (1st February) in which he warns:
"Down with the rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and mistletoe;
Down with the holly, ivy, all,
Wherewith ye dress'd the Christmas Hall :
That so the superstitious find
No one least branch there left behind :
For look, how many leaves there be
Neglected, there (maids, trust to me)
So many goblins you shall see."
To be fair there was none of this tinsel in November at that time though: Christmas Eve was the moment when people got their decorations up.
Christmas itself isn't mentioned much by Shakespeare, and twice it's to diss the terrible amateur acting you would be likely to see during the twelve days' celebrations - though these comments could well have been self-depricating jokes. Theatre was a big part of Christmas celebrations at the Royal Court. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later known as the King’s Men) would come to Court and perform for the Queen or King, and this was the company that Shakespeare most often wrote for with many of his plays known to have been performed during the twelve days celebrations.
"Sly: Marry, I will; let them play it. Is not a comonty a Christmas gambold or a tumbling-trick?
Page: No, my good lord, it is more pleasing stuff."
The Taming of the Shrew
"I see the trick on’t: here was a consent, Knowing aforehand of our merriment, To dash it like a Christmas comedy"
Love’s Labour's Lost (a comedy we definitely know was performed at Christmas for Queen Elizabeth at Whitehall)
New Year presents are mentioned once -
"Well, if I be served such another trick, I’ll have my brains ta’en out and buttered, and give them to a dog for a New Year’s gift."
Merry Wives of Windsor
- this tended to be when gifts were given rather than on Christmas day as we do now now. Other than gifts though New Year wasn't really much of a thing, and in fact the actual numerical new year (2020, 2021) wouldn't begin until 25th March (traditionally Lady Day or the feast of the Annunciation when the angel told Mary she had a holy bun in the oven). The new year starting at, well, New Year didn't start officially in England until we switched to the Gregorian calendar as late as 1750.
Back to celebrating Twelfth night. It might not have been the time to take your mistletoe down, but it was a much bigger deal than it is today. A bit more like modern New Year's Eve outside of the pandemic - massive parties, feasting, pranking, dressing up, sharing huge bowls of mulled alcohol, masked dancers, transgressive behaviour that defies or inverts societal norms. The play Twelfth Night was so called as it was written to be performed on twelfth night, rather than being actually set on that date, but it does contain some themes of the festival - dressing up and misrule for example. However Shakespeare mentions one particular element of twelfth night twice elsewhere: the wassail drink Lambs Wool - frothy mulled spiced ale with cooked crab apples (crabs) floating on top.
"Sometimes lurk I in the gossip's bowl
In very likeness of a roasted crab
And when she drinks, against her lips I bob,
And down her withered dewlap pours the ale."
Midsummer Night's Dream
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,
Then nightly sings the staring owl
“Tu-whit to-who.” A merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.
Love's Labours Lost
Wassailing continues today and has been revived in many places. It is particularly a thing down in the South West. It often includes festivities associated with encouraging the apple harvest for the year. But mostly makes me think of the going from house to house singing songs, eating and drinking which used to take place. I love the fact that the word means both the drink itself, the act of toasting someone's good health, and the practice of carousing in this specific way. In fact the word toasting apparently comes from the toasts which would be set to float in the wassail bowl.
Wassail comes from the Anglo Saxon 'Be in good health' an appropriate toast for us now, here in 2021 (which may as well begin, old style, on 25th March this year).
As far as resolutions go
"I am fresh of spirit and resolved to meet all perils very constantly."
Rebecca MacMillan's stand-alone online class 'Getting Texty With It' is on 20th January 7pm-9pm GMT.
Use Shakespeare's own words as an inspirational springboard to create improvised insults, compliments, momentous monologues, witty dialogue, poignant poetry and more. Book now.
Improvising the plays the Bard never wrote.