Date December 6, 2022
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Veni, vidi, celebravi: Inside Brown’s 75-year-old Latin Carol Celebration

Since 1948, a spirited December event hosted by the Department of Classics has drawn hundreds of audience members from far and wide for performances, readings and carol singalongs in Latin, ancient Greek and Sanskrit.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — “Mox est celebrandum!” proclaimed posters, emails and social media posts in the weeks leading up to a very special Monday, Dec. 5, event at Brown University.

For those whose Latin is a little — or a lot — rusty, that translates to “soon we will celebrate.”

Nearly every December since 1948, the one-night-only Latin Carol Celebration has brought so-called “dead languages” to life through performances, readings and carol singalongs in Latin, ancient Greek and Sanskrit.

Hosted by the University’s Department of Classics, the offbeat, highly spirited event draws hundreds of audience members from far and wide. Attendees include College Hill students and scholars, young Latin learners from middle and high schools across New England, local language lovers — and even curious onlookers who know next to nothing about ancient languages. On Monday night, more than 500 people from multiple states and generations packed into Sayles Hall, or joined the online livestream, for the 74th celebration.

“There have been years where attendance was up to 800 or 900 people,” said Jeri DeBrohun, an associate professor of classics and director of the celebration since 2005. “Even last year, when we were all singing in masks and fewer people were gathering in large groups, there were close to 400 people in the audience.”

DeBrohun said the Latin Carol Celebration was founded by John Rowe Workman and Herbert Newell Couch, two classics professors at Brown. Workman — still remembered today as one of the most beloved faculty members in University history — played the organ at the first annual celebration, and Couch served as emcee, or “magister equitum.” Couch’s “salutatio,” or opening speech, provided a heartfelt and humorous account of the past year on College Hill and in the broader Rhode Island community.

There’s just something very fun about singing in a language you don’t know at the top of your lungs.

Jeri DeBrohun Associate Professor of Classics
Jeri DeBrohun standing at a podium and gesturing to the audience

In the beginning, readings came mostly from the Bible, and the singalongs were all Christmas carols translated into Latin — “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” for example, became “Serena Nocte Media.” Some traditions have not changed: The sitting University president, for example, has long attended to offer a reading in Latin, and since the late 1950s, the all-female a cappella group the Chattertocks has delivered a Latin rendition of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” But over the decades, DeBrohun said, the program has diversified: Classics faculty began mixing in passages from the Roman poets Horace and Tibullus and adding readings in Greek and Sanskrit.

The event has also become a bit more accessible for lapsed or beginner Latin speakers, DeBrohun said. On Monday night, a graduate student held up signs indicating when audience members should laugh (“ridete”) or applaud (“plaudite”). And the program included English translations of both the readings and DeBrohun’s opening speech.

“Some of the language I use in the opening speech is a sort of fun, modern-created language,” she said. “Over the years, emcees have had to figure out how to say ‘football’ and ‘rugby’ in Latin to celebrate great sports seasons on campus. This year I sought a way to discuss the Roger Williams Zoo’s new baby giraffe in Latin.”

According to DeBrohun, Brown may be the only college or university in the country to host a seasonal event like this one. But she believes that isn’t the prime reason for the celebration’s high turnout.

“It’s fun, it’s a little quirky, and it’s heavy on audience participation,” she said. “We’re not pretending everyone’s going home afterward and saying, ‘Wow, now I want to study Latin.’ There’s just something very fun about singing in a language you don’t know at the top of your lungs.”