Word of the Day: Christmas

December 2, 2011 in Word of the Day

Shakespeare was, I’m sure, no grinch, but he does only mention ‘Christmas’ a mere three times, twice in the same play. That play is Love’s Labour’s Lost, and within it, Berowne is the xmas-obsessed character. Near the start of the play, as the King of Navarre and his friends prepare to vow themselves to celibacy, Berowne carps about such an oath, arguing – just before giving in to peer-pressure – that this is a bad idea since the time for celibacy is later, and that all things have their time, including festive weather:

BEROWNE Why should I joy in any abortive birth?
At Christmas I no more desire a rose
Than wish a snow in May’s new-fangled shows;
But like of each thing that in season grows;
So you, to study now it is too late,
Climb o’er the house to unlock the little gate.

Of course, though, Christmas is about more than weather, and, as Berowne’s ‘everything in its time’ argument suggests, there were a host of traditional things to do. Eat turkey (as Henry VIII was one of the first to do), munch pies and make merry until Epiphany (or Twelfth Night) marked the climax of festivities. As regards specific entertainment, Berowne, speaking of his failed plan to impress the ladies two-thirds of the way through the play, mentions one such activity:

BEROWNE I see the trick on’t: here was a consent,
Knowing aforehand of our merriment,
To dash it like a Christmas comedy.

”A Christmas comedy” refers to the many plays put on to entertain revellers in the Christmas season, and may even refer to a specific performance of The Comedy of Errors at Gray’s Inn on 28th December 1598, which, ending in uproar, did not go well at all.

My final reference to Christmas comes from another of Shakespeare’s comedies, The Taming of the Shrew, and this time reveals a rather low opinion of the festive period. A troop of actors arrive at Christopher Sly’s house in an attempt to cheer him up; surprised, he questions his servants about their intent.

SLY. Marry, I will; let them play it. Is not a commonty a Christmas gambold or a tumbling-trick?
PAGE. No, my good lord; it is more pleasing stuff.

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