The beloved song has a complicated history
Advent is a season of both light and darkness. As the nights grow long and cold, some Christians light candles in anticipation of the coming of the Christ child.
The opening words of the common English version of the "Huron Carol" – ’Twas in the moon of wintertime, when all the birds had fled / That mighty Gitchi Manitou sent angel choirs instead – hints at this interplay of light and darkness.
The carol takes its name from the Huron or Wendat people, an indigenous farming people who lived in villages between Georgian Bay and Lake Simcoe in the 17th century.
When the French began to settle along the St. Lawrence River, the curious Huron established contact with them. The Huron and French soon developed an alliance centred on the fur trade and co-operation against common enemies, like the Iroquois or Haudenosaunee south of Lake Ontario, longtime rivals of the Huron.
The Jesuits, a disciplined Catholic religious order, came to North America not to buy furs or make military alliances but to spread Christianity. They sent their first missionaries to the Huron in 1627 under the protection of the French authorities.
As 17th-century Catholics their understanding of the gospel differed in some ways from an evangelical one, but they had a strong desire to share the Christian message as they understood it.
Most of the Huron thought the serious, black-robed Jesuits were strange and so they took little interest in their teachings. When diseases like smallpox, unwittingly carried by the Europeans, swept through the community, the missionaries were accused of being sorcerers who spread sickness. Some wanted to expel or kill the Jesuits, but held back because they did not want to endanger the alliance with the French.
The Huron, like other First Nations of the Great Lakes region, appreciated music, which carried great spiritual significance. The Jesuits understood the power of music to bridge cultural divides, and tended to choose men with musical ability for missionary work. They wrote songs in the Huron language, often using existing melodies, to communicate the Christian message.
One of these songs was the original "Huron Carol," probably composed around 1642 by the missionary Jean de Brébeuf. While the melody came from a common French folk song, the words were Huron, including the refrain Jesous ahatonhia, meaning "Jesus is born!" The original lyrics, as translated by John Steckley, were:
You human beings,
Take heart, Jesus is born!
The spirit who enslaved us has departed;
Do not listen to him, for he corrupts our minds.
Jesus, he is born!
Some Huron received this message and gradually a small Christian community developed. The most important Huron village, Ossossané, even became predominantly Christian by 1648.
Were the Jesuits merely a tool of French colonialism? The presence of French colonial power made it possible for them to carry out their mission. But historian Bruce Trigger argues the Jesuits hoped Huronia would be an independent state, both Huron and Christian, an ally of France, but free from French control.
PERCENTAGE OF THE HURON WHO HAD BECOME CHRISTIANS BY 1648
- "THE FRENCH PRESENCE IN HURONIA," CANADIAN HISTORICAL REVIEW 49 (1968) BY BRUCE TRIGGER
It was not to be. In 1649 the Iroquois, with help from disgruntled Huron allies, attacked the Huron homeland. The old enmity between the two peoples, exacerbated by European weapons and colonial rivalries, erupted in a cataclysm of violence. Weakened by the new diseases, and unable to match the large numbers of European guns wielded by the Iroquois, the Hurons were killed, captured or dispersed. Two Jesuits, including Father Brébeuf and Gabriel Lalemant, were taken prisoner, tortured and brutally murdered. Huronia was no more.
Later, a small group of Huron survivors eventually made their way to the Quebec City area. They took the "Huron Carol" with them, and taught it to their children, who taught it to their children. More than a century later, it was written down and then translated into French.
The familiar and haunting English version was written in 1926 by J. E. Middleton, though his lyrics do not closely follow the original words. As an alternative a beautiful version by Canadian musician Heather Dale combines accurate Huron, French and English lyrics – well worth a listen this Advent season.
There is great darkness in the story of the "Huron Carol" – greed, violence, power, politics, martyrdom. In fact, it is like the story of fallen humanity in general.
But the gospel reminds us, "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (John 1:5, ESV). In the words of the carol itself, Take heart, Jesus is born!
Kevin Flatt is associate professor of history and director of research at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ont. Read more at www.FaithToday.ca/HistoryLesson.