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New Year Celebrations hardly feature in Shakespeare's works and he only mentions Christmas three times. Explaining the lack of New Year quotes is easy enough, but why did Shakespeare dodge Christmas in his writing?
Shakespeare New Year Quotes
New Year barely features in Shakespeare's plays simply because it wasn't until 1752 that the Gregorian calendar was adopted in Britain. In Elizabethan England, the year changed after Lady Day on 25 March.
For Shakespeare, the New Year celebrations of the modern world would have seemed bizarre because in his own time New Year's Day was nothing more than the eighth day of Christmas.
However, it was still customary in the court of Elizabeth I to exchange gifts at New Year, as this quote from "Merry Wives of Windsor" demonstrates (but note the distinct lack of celebratory tone):
Have I lived to be carried in a basket, like abarrow of butcher's offal, and to be thrown in theThames? Well, if I be served such another trick,I'll have my brains ta'en out and buttered, and givethem to a dog for a new-year's gift…
Merry Wives of Windsor (Act 3, Scene 5)
Shakespeare Christmas Quotes
So that explains the lack of New Year celebration; but why are there so few Shakespeare Christmas quotes? Perhaps he was “a bit of a Scrooge!”
Joking aside, the “Scrooge” factor is actually very important. In Shakespeare's time, Christmas simply wasn't celebrated in the same way as it is today. It was 200 years after the death of Shakespeare that Christmas was popularized in England, thanks to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert importing many of the German Christmas traditions. Our modern conception of Christmas is immortalized in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, from the same period. So, in many ways, Shakespeare was “a bit of a Scrooge!”
Here are the three times Shakespeare did mention Christmas in his plays:
At Christmas I no more desire a roseThan wish a snow in May's new-fangled mirth;
Love's Labours Lost (Act 1, Scene 1)
I see the trick on't: here was a consent,Knowing aforehand of our merriment,To dash it like a Christmas comedy:Some carry-tale, some please-man, some slight zany,
Love's Labours Lost (Act Five, Scene 2)
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 (Intro, scene 2)
Did you notice how downbeat these Shakespeare Christmas quotes are?
That's because, in Elizabethan England, Easter was the main Christian festival. Christmas was a less-important 12-day festival known for pageants put on at the Royal Court and by churches for townspeople.
In the quotes above, Shakespeare does not hide his dislike of pageant acting:
- In "Love's Labours Lost," Berowne guesses that a wooing strategy has failed and that the ladies are now ridiculing the men. The ridicule is compared to a Christmas play: “dash it like a Christmas comedy.”
- In "The Taming of the Shrew," Sly disregards the action as a Christmas “gambold”, a word meaning a frolic or light entertainment. Page suggests that it will be better than that awful acting you see at Christmas.
Overlooking New Year and Christmas
The lack of New Year and Christmas celebration may seem strange to the modern reader, and one must look at the calendar and religious conventions of Elizabethan England to contextualize this absence.
None of Shakespeare's plays are set at Christmas, not even "Twelfth Night," which is commonly considered to be a Christmas play.
It is widely believed that the play's title was written for a performance on the twelfth day of Christmas at the royal court. But a reference in the title to the timing of the performance is where the Christmas references of this play end. It actually has nothing to do with Christmas.