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Word of the day: kerst (Christmas, Yuletide)

Ho, ho, ho, what an original word at this time of the year…. Yes, indeed. Ho, ho, ho. Gelukkige KERST (Happy Christmas) all you language lovers all over this wordy world. And a Gelukkig Nieuwjaar (happy New Year). I wish you thousands of joyful words and warm phrases and I hope that they’ll all come true for you. VREDE, GELUK, LIEFDE, VRIENDSCHAP, GEZELLIGHEID, WIJSHEID, WARMTE, GEZONDHEID.

In the last year I discussed the above words and over two hundred more. One of the first words I started with was the word KALKOEN (turkey). Tomorrow I’ll return to this noble fowl and remind you what privilege it is to have it roasted on your dish.

But for now, let’s have a look at KERST and KERSTMIS. Or rather, let’s go back to BC (before Christ or CE, Common Era). Two thousand years ago, when our uncivilised forefathers and foremothers, the heathens, were trying to survive the many natural disasters in these cold and forsaken swamps, they must have done something uplifting to alleviate the approach of severe frosty storms and floods in the dead of winter.

In English the word ‘Yule’ reminds us of these pre-Christian times. In Old Norse ‘jol’ was a heathen feast that lasted many days. Old French borrowed this Germanic word and transformed it to ‘jolif’ which is still alive in the modern French word ‘joli’ (pretty, wonderful). Apparently the English stole ‘joli’ back as ‘jolly’ in the Middle Ages after the Norman conquest.

In Old English the midwinter months were known by the heathenish name ‘giuli’. After the Anglo-Saxons had been converted, the name was given to the jolly feast of Christ’s birth which began 25th December. The old heathen name ‘jol’ was given to the feast of the nativity. Old English ‘geol’ or ‘geola’ meant Christmas time. Today the word survives as ‘Jul’ (Swedish), ‘Jul’ (Danish), ‘Jul’ (Norwegian), ‘Jól’ (Icelandic), ‘Joulu’ (Finnish), ‘Joelfest’ (Friesian) and ‘Jõulud’ (Estonian).

The converted (gekerstende) Anglo-Saxons also knew the word ‘Cristes mæsse’ but originally this phrase referred to the mass devoted to Christ on the Saviour’s alleged birthday. Sometime in the Middle Ages the heathenish word was taken over by ‘Cristenmesse’ and that’s the English word used up to now.

If you think that today’s ‘Xmas’ for Christmas is a modern invention, you’re wrong. The ‘X’ has always been a shortened form of Christ. The phrase ‘Xres mæsse’ for the ‘mass of Christ’ already occurs in the eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

The English ‘Middle Agers’ also knew the word ’nowel’ for the feast of Christmas. Like ‘jolly’ the word ‘nowel’ was borrowed from Old French ‘noel’ (meaning Christmas season) which was in its turn derived from Latin ‘natalis’ (birth)

For several centuries the word ‘Yule’ went underground. In the nineteenth century it was revived. Why? Because of nostalgic sentiments. People longed for the good old days before industrialism and smog. People wanted the return of the heavenly golden age of ‘Merrie’ England and started using antiquarianisms like ‘Ye Olde Shoppe’. Yuletide must have rung like a heartwarming Christmas Carol.

After this long verbal detour we return to KERST. Somehow the words ‘Yule’ or ‘JOL’ did not find their way into Dutch. In the Middle Ages Jesus Christ became known as ‘ihesus kerst’. So in Dutch the ‘r’ in ‘krest’ (Christ) travelled from a position before the vowel to a position after the vowel and became ‘kerst’. You can see similar mutations in words like ‘borst’ (breast), ‘korst’ (crust), ‘pers’ (press) and ‘vorst’ (frost).

For many centuries the Dutch celebrated KERSTMIS, but in the twentieth century this word was deemed too long and people shortened it to KERST. As time goes by and as the Dutch culture will become more and more ‘multicultured’, and less and less religious, more and more people will not recognise Christ in KERST anymore. Perhaps one day the word KERST will meet with the same fate that heathenish ‘Jol’ has gone.

Whatever the future has in store for us, KERST will always be a sorely-needed winterfeast swollen with mighty meanings and grand words like peace, harmony and love. Will our descendants know what the origins of KERST are, or will silence and wonder be their most likely response?