Christmas Comes but Once a Year

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

Historical Records

Payments to Playwrights (Henslowe's Diary)

F. 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

Payments for Properties (Henslowe's Diary)

F. 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 fatal illness of Queen Elizabeth in mid-March 1603 and further by the general raggedness of theatrical schedules later in the spring 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 hundredth points of good Husbandrie ... by Thomas Tusser (Tusser). In Tusser, the phrase occurs in a holiday-themed verse in the following stanza:

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 Husandrie began in 1557 as A Hundred Good Points of Husbandry; the Christmas proverb occurs in the first expansion to five hundred points. Very popular, the book enjoyed new editions every few years to 1604, then sporadically until 1692.

References to the Play

Information welcome.

Critical Commentary

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

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

For What It's Worth

1602, Satiromastix

Works Cited

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.