Shakespeare and the mention of Christmas don’t much intersect for two main reasons. One, back in Elizabethan times, Christmas wasn’t the big commercial deal it is today. And two, the Bard was very, very careful about religion in his plays and poetry: Elizabethan England was a police state, and one of the supreme crimes–after treason–were crimes of faith. Even with the even-minded Elizabeth, who tried to bring everyone together, the extreme believers on either end would have none of it. The Papists and Puritans hated one another, and Shakespeare wisely gave Christianity a wide berth.
Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallowed and so gracious is the time.
—Hamlet, Act I Scene i
That’s it. Shakespeare’s only explicit reference to Christmas, and he doesn’t even say the word. It’s from Hamlet, and here Shakespeare only uses the idea of Christmas to set up the idea that evil is one its way. A holy day, when even ghosts are not allowed to haunt and witches aren’t allowed to spin charms. Ah, but a vengeful ghost is coming, and with him we’ll bring down tragedy and woe upon the entire castle of Elsinore.
Merry Christmas, one and all, and enjoy this holiday, with the hopes that tonight and tomorrow might, indeed, ward off evil and spirits for just a while.
Postscript: And no, the play Twelfth Night doesn’t refer to Christmas either. It was the last night of the big Christmas season, traditionally reserved for performances, to which the title refers.
The image is from the ‘Cobbe Portrait’ of Shakespeare. There’s strong evidence that is the only portrait ever commissioned of the Bard during his lifetime. Artist unknown, but this Jacobean painting was discovered with a painting of another Elizabethan, Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton. Who was he? Why, most Shakespeare’s Young Man of the Sonnets.