In Shakespeare’s day, Christmas wasn’t nearly the important holiday it is to many people today. Easter was a bigger deal, by far, in Elizabethan and Jacobean times.
In fact, Shakespeare used the word “Christmas” only three times in his thirty-eight plays–twice in Love’s Labour’s Lost and once in The Taming of the Shrew (and Twelfth Night derives its name from the last evening of the “twelve days of Christmas,” which was traditionally an evening of theatrical entertainments in the Elizabethan court, but otherwise has nothing to do with the holiday).
However, in Hamlet, Marcellus, a guard on Elsinore’s walls, cited a popular Christmas legend:
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.
The Bard and the Bible (A Shakespeare Devotional) says this about those lines:
Translation: Some say the rooster (“bird of dawning”) crows all night on Christmas Eve, and no ghosts or evil forces can make trouble in the night because it is such a holy time. It is a beautiful thought (unless you live next door to a rooster), legend though it is. But Marcellus had this much right: that moment “wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,” when heaven kissed earth, the Infinite became an infant, and a virgin brought forth a son—Jesus, our Emmanuel, “God with us”—is a holy and gracious time.
You may not associate “the bird of dawning” with Christmas, but here’s hoping your celebration is hallowed and gracious.