Once Shakespeare became a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and later The King’s Men, the royals often requested that he and his company perform as the official royal entertainment at Christmas. Christmas for Shakespeare from 1592 to 1613 meant work. Nevertheless, it must’ve been a thrill for this country boy from Warwickshire England to see how the king and courtiers of his country would celebrate Christmas with elaborate feasts, parties, dances, and of course drama.
We know for a fact that Shakespeare was asked to perform at Christmas. As you can see on this title page for Shakespeare’s Loves Labors Lost, we have records of his plays being performed by name for the Christmas feast. In Tudor and Jacobean times, The Master of the Revels kept records of which plays he permitted to perform during the Christmas season and those records reveal what kind of entertainment each monarch enjoyed at Christmas.
Christmas at King Henry VIII’s palace
Although King Henry the Eighth died before Shakespeare was born, his Christmas feasts were so lavish I simply had to devote some space in this post to talk about him. Henry outlawed all sports and games at Christmastime during his reign, focusing instead on drama and feasts. Part of the reason that the king outlawed any kind of sports (except archery), was because of the huge caloric quantity ingested from his feasts. To be blunt, as Henry aged, his diet only got worse. Near the end of his life, he was so overweight, his attendants needed a crane to get him out of bed!
Henry’s Christmas feasts were the stuff of legend. One third of his palace at Hampton court was devoted to the kitchens! The feast would include as many exotic and expensive dishes as the king’s court could imagine!
Christmas turkey became popular in Henry the eighth’s day but it would certainly share a dish with peacock, hare, goose, and wild boar; the and most vicious animal to kill in the wild forest. There’s even a Christmas carol called the Boar’s Head Carol, which celebrates how hard it was to procure and prepare such an animal. For Henry, exotic food was a symbol of his power and so he stocked his Christmas feast with the most elaborate food a king could buy to impress his nobles and visiting dignitaries.
After the feast, the court would sing together, often to unaccompanied music called madrigals. These were short, secular songs in multiple voice parts and they were the pop songs of Henry’s day; he even composed a few himself! Here’s a video of a modern pop song in the madrigal style: Pop madrigal: Dark Horse
If you watch this video you can see an incredible documentary, where a group of historic food historians re-creating an elaborate tudor feast: A Tudor Feast
If you liked this post, please consider signing up for my new online class, “What Was Christmas Like For William Shakespeare?” I’ll go further into the traditions of Elizabethan Christmas and add some insight into Shakespeare’s play “Twelfth Night.” Register now at Outschool.com!
– Shakespearen Student