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You Can’t Say “Christmas” In Shakespeare’s English

The email from the Folger Consort, a musical program of Washington, DC’s esteemed Folger Shakespeare Library, arrived with the subject line “Celebrate the Season with Folger Consort” and it offered an enticing program featuring Parisian violinist Julien Chauvin and soprano Rosa Lamoreaux, along with a “talented” chamber orchestra. 

Folger emailRecipients are invited to “Bring your family and friends—and hear what the DCist has called 'the most musically satisfying holiday concert in the city.'  Plenty of hot cider, festive cookies, and holiday cheer will be available at concessions during intermission.” 

However, what “season” and “holiday” one was being invited to “celebrate” was left a little vague, since the word “Christmas” never appeared in the email – despite the fact that the venue selected for the concert series is a Christian church! 

That’s right – throughout the invitation to a concert at DC’s Church of the Reformation, featuring Chapentier's Noëls and Guido's Four Seasons – the word Christmas does not appear once. 

Unless, that is, one counts the word “Noël” which of course is French for Christmas.  

Then again perhaps the politically correct e-marketing team at the Folger Consort presumes those they wish to avoid offending are illiterate in French and won’t know that the title of the music they are being invited to enjoy is (literally translated) “Christmases,” which would make no sense in English, so “Noëls” is generally translated to English as “Christmas carols.” 

Or perhaps they think they should take a cue from Shakespeare himself who, although he is the foundational author of modern English, was very spare is his references to Christmas in his plays. 

In all of his works, Shakespeare uses the word “Christmas” only three times. 

Why was Shakespeare so parsimonious with references to Christmas? 

Even though the Bard titled a play “Twelfth Night,”  the play has nothing to do with Christmas; in Elizabethan England Twelfth Night was the occasion for theatrical performances at the royal court on the “twelfth night” of the twelve days of the Christmas observance, when the play was thought to have been performed.   

So, the title “Twelfth Night” merely reflects the day upon which it was performed. But this is consistent with the spiritual life of Shakespeare’s times, when Easter, not Christmas, was the primary religious observance of Christians – and Easter, the time of sacrifice and resurrection, remains the central pillar of Christian observance to this day.  

Likewise, Chapentier, writing his “Noëls” in the late 17th Century (1690s) was writing for an audience that knew little of Christmas as it is celebrated today. 

In Medieval and Renaissance France one was much more likely to encounter a Christmas dice game or a game of “soule” which involved villages competing against each other to claim a large block of wood or a moss-filled leather ball, called the eteuf or pelote. It was propelled by being punched with the fist, kicked, or struck with curved sticks. In the course of these encounters, whose participants could be numbered in scores, all blows were allowed. Which, said medievalist  Jean-Michel Mehl, explains the large number of injuries or even fatalities involved and the consequent frequency with which this game figures in letters of pardon. 

In fairness to the Folger Consort, if you click through to their website to buy a ticket you land on a page headlined, “The Season Bids Us Christmas Music featuring Guido’s Four Seasons,” so Christmas was not exactly banished from the concert, as much as it was from the marketing of it.  

Eliminating the word “Christmas” from the marketing of a concert of Christian festive or sacred music is an absurdity which annoys and insults Christians, whose music after all is being appropriated without regard for its sacred message. 

Moreover, it fools no one – everyone knows that it is CHRISTIAN MUSIC! 

We leave our friends at the Folger with this quote from Hamlet that is Shakespeare at his insightful best, about Christmas, and about why Christ should not and cannot be banished from Christmas: 

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. 

Next year, at this “hallowed” and “gracious” time, we urge our friends at the Folger not to banish the Savior from the music that celebrates his birth.

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Merry You-Know-What!

So what if you feel disempowered
By someone who’s grimaced or glowered?
If you’re frightened to say
“Merry Christmas” today,
You’re simply a Noel coward!