‘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.