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The Huron Carol

By December 23, 2022 18 Comments

‘Twas in the moon of winter-time
When all the birds had fled,

That mighty Gitchi Manitou
Sent angel choirs instead;
Before their light the stars grew dim,
And wandering hunters heard the hymn:
“Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born,
In excelsis gloria.

It’s Christmas all right–“the moon of wintertime”; but this near 400-year old French Canadian carol is set some distance from the hills around Bethlehem. Gitchi Manitou? “wandering hunters?” We’re half the world away from Luke 2.

Within a lodge of broken bark
The tender Babe was found,
A ragged robe of rabbit skin
Enwrapp’d 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.”

A bark lodge is the lowly stable, swaddling clothes have become rabbit skins, and shepherds are “hunter braves.” 

“The Huron Carol,” the first North American Christmas carol, is almost as old as boot prints on Plymouth Rock. It predates the American Revolution by more than a century and was written and sung in the Huron language by a man some still call Canada’s “patron saint,” Father Jean de Brébeuf, a French-Canadian Jesuit.

I read about it, and him, in a publication of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada, a booklet titled Hymn Texts in the Aboriginal Languages of Canada (1992), from a series edited by Bert Polman. Hymn Texts was sent to me by someone who thought I’d appreciate it. They weren’t wrong.

As enchanting as it is beautiful, the old carol creates a quiet nativity fully furnished as Native American, “Silent Night” in beaded moccasins. Ancient as it is, “The Huron Carol, in a delightfully disarming way, plays fast-and-loose with the gospel account. I’m not sure my mother would approve. 

Father Brébeuf, a towering presence, worked hard to learn the Huron language and even picked up the rhetorical earmarks of the people he came to serve. Then or now, mission work was no picnic; for years, the only Huron he baptized lay at death’s portal. But Father Brébeuf, a powerhouse, was persistent, driven by what he considered his divine calling, so driven, in fact, that it cost him his life. 

In March of 1649, he was accosted by the Iroquois, who were at war with the Huron. The Iroquois thought the Black Robe a prize. They mocked his religion by baptizing him with boiling water, then finished an all-day ritual torture with a singular horror meant, strangely enough, to honor the man they’d slowly butchered: each of the Iroquois warriors ate from Father Brébeuf’s heart, hoping to share thereby the bravery and courage the black-robed medicine man had exhibited so unflinchingly before death finally took him.

If you know that story, it’s difficult to hear “The Huron Carol” without recounting Father Brébeuf’s life–and tragic death. The path the old hymn takes resounds with his immense commitment to the Indigenous, who were, after all, the first to sing the Huron Carol, men and women who slowly came to love him dearly. He wanted nothing more than to show the light of the world to those he saw in darkness, to share with them, he might have said, “the peace that passeth understanding”–“peace on earth, goodwill to men.”

Today, some claim Father Jean de Brébeuf to be among the very first colonizers, on a mission to begin the cultural genocide of the Indigenous he claimed he came to save. The Huron had their own religion, their own way of life. No one asked a French priest to come by and change their world.

It’s difficult not to hear the colonizer beneath the lyrics of the hymn Brébeuf created, the story he wanted so badly to craft in order to offer the Huron the gospel’s grand Christmas story. He wanted them to love the tiny baby in rabbit skins, their own infant Gitchi Manitou. He wanted them to depart what it was they believed before he arrived. 

I don’t know what to say about “The Huron Carol.” I’m sure I know some people who would spite the old hymn for its syncretism, its silly falsehoods–a First Nations Jesus born in French Canada? Really?

Yet, today, others believe the old carol reeks of rapacious colonialism and inherent racism.

The oldest North American Christmas carol is something you probably won’t hear in Wal-Mart this season. Its well-meant baggage is certain to offend someone’s dignity, cancel someone’s culture. “The Huron Carol” is difficult to talk about, and difficult to write about–believe me. I’m trying.

Some of you, I hope, will forgive me for saying it shouldn’t not be played or sung or loved. “The Huron Carol” is a centuries-old Christmas hymn that not only tells an unforgettably complex story but also is one. Its concerns today are ours—its undercurrents, its subtext on the nature of our missions make any performance as much about us as it is about the wondrous baby in a broken bark lodge.

There’s nothing cute, nothing tinsel about it. Its has something to teach us. In a very complicated way, it adds a dimension to “a peace that passeth understanding.” The old carol makes “peace on earth, good will toward men” seem even more bold a task for a babe in swaddling clothes or rabbit skins.

Troublesome as it is, “The Huron Carol” is simple and beautiful. If you’ve never heard it, take the time, just this once, this Christmas.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Yes, you give us the poignancy, the delight, and the dilemmas of the Incarnation.
    1987, our first Ontario Christmas, our kids learning both the Huron Carol (first at public school, mind you!) and then (only at church) Ere Zij God, ere zij God, in den Hemel, in den Hemel, in den Hemel.
    I’ve always loved the combination of “Gitchi Manitou” with “In excelsis gloria.”
    Thanks for this.

    • Henry Baron says:

      I hope your kids still sing on Christmas Eve and Day those hymns they learned long ago, along with the congregation at Eastern Ave. which learned to sing the Ere Zij God in den Hoge by heart.

  • Robert Otte says:

    Thanks, Jim. I sang this Carol with our church choir some years ago.

  • Jack Ridl says:

    Such a good man you are: ever kind, ever lovingly uncertain, ever complex, ever redemptive. And what a gently arresting story teller.

  • Ed Starkenburg says:

    Thanks for sharing this, James!

  • TIM VAN DEELEN says:

    Thank you James. I did not know of this hymn and I appreciate your telling and introspection. I often wonder what Christianity would be if it had grown to maturity in a different culture.

  • Jon Pott says:

    So welcome, Jim, in its gentle, meditative complexity. And that “moon of winter-time”! Thanks.

  • Jane Brown says:

    Each year I buy a Christmas book associated with true story- Huron Carol was my 1993 book- Enjoyed seeing your post today

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    Such a truly fine carol, Jim.
    Thanks for pointing us to it this season.
    Our Christ Memorial Church choir did my setting of it a number of years ago.
    The cross cultural nature of the incarnation is highlighted. The Son comes to all.

  • James C Dekker says:

    Thanks, Jim. One Xmas Day in Thunder Bay–whee many Cree live, our Worship Committee included this carol as a congregational. Caused a significant winter storm that year that offered a teaching moment. We talked about contextualization, made up events, syncretism and “cultural appropriation and settler values,” though we didn’t know those words then. All in all it was a good conversation, but I don’t remember using the carol again.

  • Norm Steen says:

    Thank you so much, James. Entrancing texts and thoughts, perfect for us here in Saugatuck, Michigan as the blizzards keeps us all inside.
    Each year I immerse myself in Christmas carols from all over the world, and have spent much time with The Huron Carol. Those of us in the Lakeshore Community Chorus sang the wonderful arrangement of this carol by Dan Forrest (I think it is the best choral arrangement!). The very best version available is by Bruce Cockburn who sings the carol in Huron, which he laboriously learned, tutored by a scholar of Huron at the the University of Sudbury, John Steckley (now of Humber Colleg. Bruce excoriates the traditional translation, even though he acknowledges that First Nations singers usually use it unapologetically.
    A sample of a literal translation:
    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 (Iesus Ahattonnia). Jesus, he is born.

    The okie spirits who live in the sky are coming with a message
    They’re coming to say, “Rejoice! (ie., be on top of life!)
    Mary has given birth. Rejoice!”
    Jesus, he is born (Iesus Ahattonnia)

    Full disclosure: I also love the traditional English translation.
    And I thank you again for directing our thoughts to this carol, the good father Brebeuf, and the Huron people.

  • Anita says:

    Lovely piece. Yes, check out Bruce Cockburn’s version of this song and also William Kurelek’s “A Northern Nativity”. He has a piece in this book about the Holy Family as Indigenous and references this song.I pull this book from my shelf every Christmas as well as my children’s books on the Huron Carol. I love the Kurelek’s text, although I think he would’ve chosen different words had he written it today.

  • Henry Baron says:

    I first learned of the extraordinary courage and commitment of Father Brébeuf through the Canadian author Rudy Wiebe’s books
    A colonizer through his mission to create a Christian community? Perhaps the two cannot be cleanly separated. Thanks for struggling with that, Jim! And for including that beautiful rendition of the Huron Carol.

  • Andrea Wells Miller says:

    I first heard this carol sung by Sarah McLachlan on her CD “Wonderland.” Thanks for giving us the history of it.

  • June says:

    Thanks for stretching my mind and heart this Christmastide. The photography combined with the lyrics made for me a wonderful gift. The name of Father Brebuf will stay with me! And as one of your friends stated, the Son comes for all. Amen.

  • We have sung A Huron Carol every Christmas for the past thirty years and more at our church. It is beautiful in every way, and I feel as though its complications make it even more so. There are other traditional Christmas carols that are equally, and more, suspect than this one. Yet we sing them lustily. My wife and I recently heard a rendition of A Huron Carol that brought me to tears. It was at a Christmas concert. A “sixties scoop” Indigenous woman, who struggled long and hard to find and engage her Indigenous roots, sang solo, using only a hand drum to accompany herself. She did not sing the words, but rather sang in the chanting fashion that often accompanies drumming. All of our complicated North American history in relation to Indigenous people was given voice, in the context of a song about that baby, the prince of peace. It was almost overwhelming. Thanks, James, for introducing it to a wider audience. I thought everyone knew it.

  • Carol Visser-Wolf and Steve Wolf Wolf says:

    We were not familiar with this Huron Carol, so loved getting your comments and all the other posts. It will now be included in our family tradition. Thank you!

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