Christmas Comes but Once a Year

Thomas Heywood, John Webster, Henry Chettle, and Thomas Dekker (1602)

Historical Records


For playwrights in Philip Henslowe's diary

Fol. 117v ((Greg I.184))

Lent vnto Thomas hewode & John webster }
the 2 of novmber 1602 in earneste of a playe }
called chyssmas comes bute one ayeare the }
some of } iijli

F. 118 (Greg, I.185)

Lent vnto John dewcke the 23 of novmber 1602 }
to paye vnto hareye chettell & thomas deckers }
in parte of paymente of a playe called crysmas }
comes but once a yeare the some of } xxxxs

pd at the a poyntment of Thomas hawode the }
26 of novmber 1602 … to harey chettell in }
fulle paymente of a playe called cryssmas }
comes but once a yeare the some of } xxxxs


For properties in Philip Henslowe's diary

Fol. 118v (Greg, I. 186)

Layd owt for the companye the 9 of novmber }
1602 to by ij calleco sewtes & ij buckerom }
sewtes for the playe of cryssmas comes but }
once a yeare the some of } xxxviijs 8d
Sowld vnto the company the 9 of desember }
1602 ij peces of cangable taffetie to macke }
a womones gowne & a Robe some of } iiijli xs
for the play of crysmas comes but once a year

Theatrical Provenance

"Christmas Comes but Once a Year" was written for Worcester's players while they were at the Rose, 1602-3; the purchase of apparel in December 1602 invites the conjecture that the play was in performance by February 1603. If so, its maiden run would have been disrupted by London playhouse closures due to the mortal illness of Queen Elizabeth in mid-March 1603 and further by the general raggedness of theatrical schedules later in the year due to the onset of plague.

Probable Genre(s)

Comedy (Harbage)

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

The impetus behind the play is likely to have been the proverbial saying that is the title. Books of proverbs record the appearance of the phrase as early as 1573, in Five hundreth pointes of good Husbandrie ... by Thomas Tusser (Tusser). In Tusser, the phrase occurs in the following stanza of a holiday-themed verse:

All Saints doe laie for porke and souse,
for sprats and spurlings for their house.
At Christmas play and make good cheere,
for Christmas comes but once a yeere.

Five hundreth points of good Husbandrie began in 1557 as A Hundred Good Points of Husbandry; the Christmas proverb occurs in the 1573 expansion to five hundred points. Very popular, the book enjoyed reprintings every few years to 1604, then sporadically until 1692.

References to the Play

See For What It's Worth, below.

Critical Commentary

Fleay made no guesses about the content of Christmas Comes but Once a Year (BCED); Greg was equally silent, saying "Nothing is known of this piece" (II, #272).

Clark was bolder, suggesting that the play "may have been a Christmas show for the holiday season" (35). Observing that "Henslowe proved more lavish than usual" by expenditures for costumes, Clark posited that an entry immediately following the payment in earnest to Heywood and Webster on 2 November might also be for the Christmas play (35, n. 2). That purchase was for "vj yardees of tynsell" at the cost of £3 (Greg I.184).

For What It's Worth

One extant play that includes the proverb, "Christmas comes but once a year," is Satiromastix. This play is also notable for weaving references to contemporary plays—as well as old favorites—into the speeches of several characters, most cleverly in those of Tucca, the blowhard captain. Given the uncertain date of composition of Satiromastix (it was published in 1602), it isn't possible to argue that the reference to the Christmas proverb is also a reference to the Christmas play, but it is Tucca who has the lines, and he has alluded to several other plays in the scene with the Christmas reference; in that very speech, there is plausibly a faint hint of Tybalt, Prince of Cats from Romeo and Juliet (in "Tyber ... Prince of Rattes" [Bowers, vol. 1, 5.2.204-5]).

The speech recalling the Christmas proverb is as follows:

Tucca: But to bite euery Motley-head vice by'th nose, you did it Ningle to play the Bug-beare Satyre, and make a Campe royall of fashion-mongers quake at your paper Bullets; you Nastie Tortois, you and your Itchy Poetry break out like Christmas, but once a year, and then you keep a Reuelling, and Araigning, and a Scratching of mens faces as tho you were Tyber the long-tail'd Prince of Rattes, doe you? (Bowers, vol. 1, 5.2.199-205)

Works Cited

Bowers, Fredson (ed.) Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker, 4 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962.
Clark, Arthur Melville.Thomas Heywood, Playwright and Miscellanist. 1931. rpt. New York, Russell and Russell, 1958, 1967.
Tusser, Thomas. Five hundreth points of good Husbandrie, as well for the Champion or Open country, as also for the Woodland or Several, mixed in eerie month with Huswiferie, ouer and besides the book of Huswiferie. London 1585.

Site created and maintained by Roslyn L. Knutson, Professor Emerita, University of Arkansas at Little Rock; updated 28 March 2015.