Christmas Music Matters: The Huron Carol

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Today, I’d like to listen to a Christmas song that has a long history in Canada.

In or about 1642, St. Jean de Brébeuf, S.J. wrote a Christmas Hymn in the Wyandot language (Huron) at the Mission station at  Sainte-Marie. The French Jesuits worked among the First Nations on what is today both sides of the Canadian/US border. He used a French folk carol, Une Jeune Pucelle (1557) for the melody:

Une jeune pucelle de noble coeur priant en sa chambrette
Son createur, l’ange du ciel, descendit sur la terre
Lui conta le mystere de notre salvateur,
ce Dieu si redoutable est homme comme toi,
est homme comme toi.
Entend ma voix fidelle, pasteur, suis moi.
Viens témoigner ton zèle au divin Roi;
Ce Dieu si grand est né dans une étable,
Ce Dieu si redoutable est homme comme toi.
est homme comme toi.

A young maiden of noble heart was praying in her little chamber
Her creator, the heavenly angel descended to earth
Recounting to heer the mystery of our Salvation,
The God so redoubtable is a man like you,
A man like you.

Listen to my faithful voice, Shepherd, follow me.
Come and testify to your zeal to the Divine King;
God so Great is born in a stable,
God so redoubtable is a man like you.
A man like you.

De Brébeuf adapted the melody, and wrote lyrics to explain the circumstances of Christ’s birth in imagery he believed would be culturally adapted for the Native peoples. Here is the carol in its original Wyandot version:

Ehstehn yayau deh tsaun we yisus ahattonnia
O na wateh wado:kwi nonnwa ‘ndasqua entai
ehnau sherskwa trivota nonnwa ‘ndi yaun rashata
Iesus Ahattonnia, Ahattonnia, Iesus Ahattonnia.

Ayoki onki hm-ashe eran yayeh raunnaun
yauntaun kanntatya hm-deh ‘ndyaun sehnsatoa ronnyaun
Waria hnawakweh tond Yosehf sataunn haronnyaun
Iesus Ahattonnia, Ahattonnia, Iesus Ahattonnia.

Asheh kaunnta horraskwa deh ha tirri gwames
Tishyaun ayau ha’ndeh ta aun hwa ashya a ha trreh
aundata:kwa Tishyaun yayaun yaun n-dehta
Iesus Ahattonnia, Ahattonnia, Iesus Ahattonnia.

Dau yishyeh sta atyaun errdautau ‘ndi Yisus
avwa tateh dn-deh Tishyaun stanshi teya wennyau
aha yaunna torrehntehn yataun katsyaun skehnn
Iesus Ahattonnia, Ahattonnia, Iesus Ahattonnia.

Eyeh kwata tehnaunnte aheh kwashyehn ayehn
kiyeh kwanaun aukwayaun dehtsaun we ‘ndeh adeh
tarrya diskwann aunkwe yishyehr eya ke naun sta
Iesus Ahattonnia, Ahattonnia, Iesus Ahattonnia.
Have courage, you who are human beings: Jesus, he is born
The okie spirit who enslaved us has fled
Don’t listen to him for he corrupts the spirits of our thoughts
Jesus, he is born

The okie spirits who live in the sky are coming with a message
They’re coming to say, “Rejoice!
Mary has given birth. Rejoice!”
Jesus, he is born

Three men of great authority have left for the place of his birth
Tiscient, the star appearing over the horizon leads them there
That star will walk first on the bath to guide them
Jesus, he is born

The star stopped not far from where Jesus was born
Having found the place it said,
“Come this way”
Jesus, he is born

As they entered and saw Jesus they praised his name
They oiled his scalp many times, anointing his head
with the oil of the sunflower
Jesus, he is born

They say, “Let us place his name in a position of honour
Let us act reverently towards him for he comes to show us mercy
It is the will of the spirits that you love us, Jesus,
and we wish that we may be adopted into your family
Jesus, he is born

Here is Bruce Cockburn’s version sung in Wyandot:

There is English version which is not a translation of the original, but rather a 20th century reworking of the material. It’s not great textually, since it mixes Algonquin terminology with Huron, and could be seen to be patronizing, but some First Nations still use it. Here is a rather elaborate version by the Canadian Tenors:

Here’s another, more serene version by our own, San Francisco, Chanticleer:

‘Twas in the moon of wintertime when all the birds had fled
That mighty Gitchi Manitou sent angel choirs instead;
Before their light the stars grew dim and wondering hunters heard the hymn,
Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born, in excelsis gloria.

Within a lodge of broken bark the tender babe was found;
A ragged robe of rabbit skin enwrapped his beauty round
But as the hunter braves drew nigh the angel song rang loud and high
Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born, in excelsis gloria.

The earliest moon of wintertime is not so round and fair
As was the ring of glory on the helpless infant there.
The chiefs from far before him knelt with gifts of fox and beaver pelt.
Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born, in excelsis gloria.

O children of the forest free, O seed of Manitou
The holy Child of earth and heaven is born today for you.
Come kneel before the radiant boy who brings you beauty peace and joy.
Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born, in excelsis gloria.

Words: Jean de Brebeuf, ca. 1643; redone by Jesse Edgar Middleton, 1926
Music: French Canadian melody (tune name: Jesous Ahatonhia)

Finally, here’s a nice, meditative instrumental of the original melody, from one of my favorites, Loreena McKennitt:

Enjoy the meditations of the Season!

Merry Christmas!

Steven A. Armstrong
Tutor, Editor, Consultant

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