In the 17th Century, Christmas Day was more than just a religious date – it marked the beginning of the traditional twelve days of celebrating, feasting, and drinking but was also a flashpoint in the political and cultural turmoil of the English Civil Wars. Over the twelve days, we’re going to be exploring some of the Christmas customs and history from the 1640s and 1650s…
While a pantomime is the usual theatrical treat for the season, for the Stuart monarchs Christmas and especially Twelfth Night were marked with extravagant performances known as masques, which were intended to personify the values of the Jacobean and Caroline courts, but which – for their enemies – came to represent a corrupt and decadent crown.
A masque was a heady combination of opera, theatre, and ballet, featuring figures from history and mythology.
They were already a popular royal pastime, a tradition that stretched back into the Middle Ages and the term ‘maske’ was first used by the historian Edward Hall to describe the revel on Twelfth Night 1512, when Henry VIII and eleven gentlemen arrived at court in disguise ‘after the manner of Italie’. Henry’s masques grew in size and splendour, the 1510s saw dancers enter mounted on arbours, castles, gardens, hills, and ships. Having done away with the Lord of Misrule, Henry instituted the post of Master of Revels, who was responsible for coordinating court entertainment and supplying costumes, stages, and lights (this office continued to be central to theatre administration until London’s theatres were closed in 1642).
The Twelve Days of Christmas became a traditional time for the court to celebrate a masque and under James VI/I ‘the expectation quickly developed that winter should be a time of lavish festivity’  so that each winter saw at least one masque, with the most popular date being Twelfth Night. Other ceremonies were often timed to coincide with the season, such as the marriage of Honoria Denny to James Lord Hay on 1607, which was marked with a masque devised by Thomas Campion and a prolonged banquet. 
So important did masques become that, in 1608, a Banqueting House was built specifically for them at Whitehall Palace. This burnt down in 1619, and was replaced by the present building, designed by Inigo Jones and completed in 1622. Jones worked closely with Jonson as a set and costume designer for the masques, though the collaboration was highly tempestuous and the partnership came to an end in 1632.
Such performances were personally led by members of the royal family or their main servants – Queen Anne appeared in six masques between 1604 and 1611 and, when Charles inherited the throne, his new queen, Henrietta Maria, promoted theatrical activity at court.  In the 1630s masques were usually staged in pairs, a masque by the King at Christmas answered by the Queen’s festival at Shrovetide (the period just before Lent, ending with Shrove Tuesday).  They were places to be seen and foreign diplomats vied with courtiers and noblemen to be in the audience. The chaplain to the Venetian Ambassador wrote of his experience after attending a masque in 1618: ‘So crowded and uncomfortable that had it not been for our curiosity we would have given up or expired … every box was filled notably with the most noble and richly arrayed ladies… During the two hours of waiting we had leisure to examine them again and again.’ 
Stuart masques were elaborate and expensive spectacles with sumptuous scenery and costumes, as well as music provided by lutes, viols, and wind instruments, and actors and singers:
Every performance used a sizeable company of professional artists. For Love Freed (1611), the musicians consisted of twenty-four lutenists (twelve of whom sang dressed as priests), fourteen violins, thirteen oboes and sackbuts, and fifteen other instrumentalists – all at a total cost of £90. Alphonso Ferrabosco was paid £20 for composing the songs, and Thomas Lupo and Robert Johnson had £5 each for making musical arrangements. Two dancing masters, Nicolas Confesse and Jacques Bochan, received £70 in total for teaching the dances, and twelve dancers and five performers of the speaking parts had £22 between them. As for Inigo Jones, who designed the set, and Ben Jonson, they each received £40 (which seems to have been Jonson’s standard reward for writing a masque throughout the whole period). Beyond this there was the expense of building and painting the set, which would have required a big investment of time and labour for craftsmen from the Office of Works. Most extravagant of all were the silks and other rich tissues worn by the masquers. At this time fabrics were disproportionately expensive luxury goods, so that the real costs of the performances were often carried on the masquers’ backs, the wealth embodied in their garments far exceeding the outlay lavished on other parts of the event. Three masquing suits for Pleasure Reconciled cost £249, and two for Neptune’s Triumph (1624) cost £171. The silkman’s bill for The Masque of Queens (1609) was £1,984. Queens must have been an exceptionally expensive occasion, for masque budgets were customarily limited to around £2,000, which was what Blackness and Prince Henry’s Barriers (1610) each cost the crown. In later years, although the masques became more elaborate, their costs were held down. For example, £400 was set aside for News from the New World (1621), while Charles spent £600 on Love’s Triumph and Henrietta Maria paid £800 for Chloridia (1631). Savings were probably made by requiring the masquers to buy their own costumes. Certainly one advantage to the crown of having marriage masques danced at Whitehall was that the family and friends always paid the bills. 
But as early as James’s reign, the godly had objected to the king’s masques and Christmas games as pagan or, worse, suspiciously Roman Catholic. This continued into Charles’ reign and, on the eve of the Civil War, Protestant convert Richard Carpenter reported that recusant gentry (those who remained secretly Roman Catholic) were noted for their ‘great Christmasses’. The result was the more and more Protestants viewed Christmas as one of the trappings of popery. 
This meant that the celebration of Christmas was at the centre of a cultural, political, and religious battle being waged between the King and his opponents, both in and outside the court, which we have already looked at in our second and sixth posts. When he wrote Christmas His Masque in 1617, Jonson made his work an evocation of a traditional Christmas already seen as under threat, ‘a right Christmas, as of old it was’.  Masques were one of the many things specifically banned by a Parliamentary ordinance issued in 1644, when Christmas coincided with the national monthly fast instituted after the beginning of the Irish Rebellion in 1641.
Part of the problem for the Puritans was not just the extravagance of the masques but also the way in which Charles used them to project his particular view of how monarchy should work:
Where James seems to have favoured rollicking good entertainment and took pleasure most in the dancing, the Caroline Court masques enacted a philosophy and ideology known as Neoplatonism. In these entertainments, the Kind appeared as the force who by his very being transformed darkness into light, wilderness into harmony, vice and chaos to virtue and order 
Many Puritans came to believe that Charles was secretly Catholic and his expensive tastes in art and entertainment, along with his belief in the supremacy of the English monarchy, showed a lack of piety and humility. Such masques also seemed almost wilfully provocative, especially when many of Charles’ subjects languished in poverty.
This is the dark shadow that hangs over memories of the evocative Christmas masques of the Caroline court – after King Charles fled London with his family in 1642 he would not set eyes on the Banqueting House at Whitehall, designed specifically for the performance of the elaborate and extravagant plays, for another seven years.
On 30 January 1649, he walked across the floor of Jones’ breathtaking hall which had once hosted his and his wife’s performances, beneath Rubens’ paintings proclaiming the strength, stability, and longevity of the Stuart dynasty, on his way to the executioner’s block.
 Antonia Fraser, The Weaker Vessel
 Cambridge ibid.
 Cambridge ibid.
 Diane Purkiss, The English Civil War: A People’s History
 Purkiss ibid.
 Kevin Sharpe, Stuart Monarchy and Political Culture from The Oxford Illustrated History of Tudor and Stuart Britain (John Morrill ed.)