How Shakespeare helped shape Christmas as we know it today


This Christmas is a troubled time — a season of war rather than peace from the Black Sea to Bethlehem.

America is full of political foreboding, and Christmas itself has become a source of controversy.

Some find the holiday adrift from its true meaning, a Christian holy day transformed into a celebration of consumerism when fir trees and reindeer are more conspicuous than the Christ child.

To others, Christmas is all too Christian for a pluralistic, 21st-century America, where we should wish one another “Happy holidays” instead of risking offense with a “Merry Christmas.”

Then there’s the playful yet often surprisingly intense argument over whether “Die Hard” is a Christmas movie.

The Bruce Willis film isn’t exactly seasonally appropriate in its themes and violence — but it does take place at Christmas.

If that makes a movie a Christmas movie, then what about a stage drama that’s also set (to begin with) at Christmas?

Is “Hamlet” a Christmas play?

Portrait of William Shakespeare.
“Hamlet” by William Shakespeare isn’t altogether a Christmas play, but Christmas is a conspicuous part of it, some say. EPA

Denmark, in Shakespeare’s story, is in disarray, much like our world.

Guards patrol the walls of Elsinore castle in anticipation of war and in trepidation of encountering the dead king’s ghost, which keeps its own watch at night.

Two friends of Prince Hamlet, Horatio, and Marcellus, see the apparition, which vanishes as soon as a cock crows.

The philosophical Horatio, who will later describe himself as an “antique Roman” — a pagan — asserts that “the god of day,” or daylight itself, is what the ghost flees.

Marcellus has another explanation: This is the season “Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,” when “they say, no spirit dares stir abroad.”

It’s Christmas, or close, and that’s no time for hauntings: “No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm / So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.”

The next night Hamlet goes with them to meet the ghost again, while within the castle the usurper upon the throne — Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius — celebrates the season with a wassail, a drink customarily enjoyed in Shakespeare’s day (and medieval Denmark) on Christmas Eve.

The play moves months ahead in time; it’s Lent when a troupe of actors visits the castle and is put to work by Hamlet in a scheme to prove his uncle murdered his father.

“Hamlet” isn’t altogether a Christmas play, but Christmas is a conspicuous part of it.

And there is good reason to think that “Hamlet” was much on the minds of two authors who shaped modern conceptions of Christmas in the 19th century.

Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (“’Twas the night before Christmas. . .”) includes the charming line “Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse” — which echoes the guard at Elsinore who reports “Not a mouse stirring.”

Twenty years later in “A Christmas Carol,” Charles Dickens would refer to Hamlet’s ghost in his own tale of yuletide hauntings.

In fact, Dickens observes the rule Marcellus set down in “Hamlet”: The ghosts are gone, their work accomplished, by the dawn of Christmas Day.

There’s a faint reminder of “Hamlet” in an earlier Dickens tale set at Christmas as well.

As in “Hamlet,” an impudent gravedigger features in a Christmas episode of “The Pickwick Papers,” “The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton.”

Curiously, the goblin who first accosts the gravedigger has a catchphrase — “Ho! Ho! Ho!” — now familiar with a very different Christmas character.

Moore and Dickens knew their Shakespeare, and when they set out to create new stories for the season, they didn’t forget the precedents the Bard had provided, few though they were.

“A sad tale’s best for winter: I have one of sprites and goblins,” says Mamillius in “The Winter’s Tale.”

In Shakespeare’s day, sprites and goblins — and ghosts — were seasonally appropriate before Christmas.

There’s debate about whether Shakespeare invented the “Marcellus rule” that banned such beings from Christmas Day onward, through Twelfth Night on the eve of Epiphany.

Yet if there were no ghosts, there were other kinds of spirits.

The “Twelve Days of Christmas” were a time of revelry — drinking, singing, putting on plays, and merriment — when not Santa Claus but a “Lord of Misrule” was the mascot of the season.

In Shakespeare’s age Puritans, much like Hamlet, were scandalized by bibulous customs like the wassail.

“Hamlet” reminds us that our Christmas troubles and soul-searching are not altogether new.

Shakespeare, too, had to ask whether his country had lost its values: Was it Christian or pagan, Catholic or Protestant, stoically philosophical or, like Hamlet in his agony, nihilistic and despairingly materialist?

Those questions had not been answered when Moore and Dickens tried to revive the Christmas spirit in the 19th century, and still, they press upon us today.

Shakespeare helps us think about them — to recognize Hamlet’s dilemmas and our own, the ghosts that haunt us but also the joyous day when they must depart.

Daniel McCarthy is the editor of Modern Age: A Conservative Review.

Twitter: @ToryAnarchist

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