Sunday, December 26, 2004

The Huron Carol

Okay, it's the day after Christmas, but I still want to share one of my favorite Christmas carols. Since I was a wee bairn I have always liked "The Huron Carol," which is also called "'Twas in the Moon of Wintertime." It was written in 1643 by Father Jean de Brebeuf, a Jesuit missionary among the Huron people in Quebec. The song was written to communicate the story of Jesus' birth in terms that the Huron people would understand using images from their culture.

Originally written in their own language, it was translated into French, and then later into English by Jesse Edgar Middleton in 1926. It was Middleton's translation that I am most familiar with. Here are his words:
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.

The Huron Carol was in the hymnal in the church where I grew up, but the "hunters" became "shepherds" and "mighty Gitchi Manitou" was changed to "God the Lord of all the Earth." The tune was still nice, but it lost the Native American imagery that made it unique.

On his 1993 "Christmas" album, Canadian folkie Bruce Cockburn recorded a version in the Huron language. Here is a direct translation of those words:
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

While this is probably more accurate, I think I like the Middleton translation better for its poetry.

More information can be found here and here.


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