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The Huron Carol -- St Jean de Brébeuf

Merry Christmas from all of us - and here's a guest poem sent in by Mac Robb:
(Poem #1794) The Huron Carol
 ’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 sons of Manitou,
 The holy Child of earth and Heav’n
 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.
-- St Jean de Brébeuf
      c.1643 (Old Huron); tr. Jesse Edgar Middleton, 1926

The approach of Christmas in hot Australia makes northern hemisphere natives
acutely nostalgic for white Decembers (and not only northern hemisphere
natives: a Tamil Christian friend of mine’s parents retired from Singapore
to Canada instead of India precisely because they love chestnuts roasting on
an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose, and all that). So here is
that belovèd chestnut, St. Jean de Brébeuf’s Huron Carol.

The Huron Carol used to embarrass me mightily when I was 8 and 9 years old
and we were obliged to sing it in school assemblies as Christmas drew nigh.
The symbolism was so obvious, and so patronising; the reference to "Gitchi
Manitou" so bogus -- and certainly in today’s terms it is politically
incorrect. But nobody seems to mind, and I’ve mellowed.

Brébeuf, a Jesuit missionary in New France, first stayed among the Huron at
Georgian Bay (in modern Ontario) in 1628 and wrote the original "Jes8s
ahatonhia" in 1643. Verse 1 is as follows:

  Estennialon de tson8e
  Jes8s ahatonhia
  Onnawatewa d' oki
  Ennonchien skwatrihotat
  Jes8s ahatonhia, Jes8s ahatonhia.

The Old Huron language, more accurately the Wendat dialect, became extinct,
though it can be reconstructed through 17th century French-Wendat
dictionaries.  The Jesuits’ orthography for Old Huron is essentially a
representation of corresponding French vowel and consonant sounds with the
"8", actually a "u" over an "o", representing the French "u" before a

The Iroquois finally dispersed the Huron in 1650 and during the course of
that dispersal massacred Brébeuf and his companions in 1649. (For a literary
reconstruction of the episode, see E.J. Pratt’s 1940 epic poem "Brébeuf and
His Brethren.") The Canadian Martyrs, as they came to be known, were in due
course canonised by the Catholic Church (Feast Day September 26: curiously,
in the USA it is observed as the Feast of the North American Martyrs [sic]
on October 19) and there are numerous "Canadian Martyrs" parishes throughout

The 1926 English version of the Huron Carol set out here -- actually more an
interpretation than a translation -- is by Jesse Edgar Middleton (1872-1960),
a Toronto journalist and church musician. Little needs to be said of the
hymn itself in Middleton’s version; strictly speaking it is not a carol at
all, having been written by an author -- two authors -- known to history, but
that is perhaps a minor point of pedantry. Despite its slightly clichéd and
inauthentic aboriginal Canadian terms it is considered something of a
national treasure in Canada; it has been commemorated in postage stamps,
paintings gift books and children's picture books. (I may seem to praise it
with faint damns but I really am now very fond of it, doubtless mostly for
reasons of sentiment.)

It is of course simply the nativity story of St Luke’s Gospel locally
adapted.  Gitchi Manitou is "the Great Spirit", or "the Mighty Lord of All
the World" (cf the several Lake Manitous and Lake Manitoba as well as the
province of of that name). Verse 3, concerning the magi-chieftains, does not
work quite as well as the other verses since, although furs became an
extremely valuable trade item for aboriginal hunters and trappers in New
France and, later, Canada, they lack the scriptural significance of gold
(for a king), incense (for a god) and myrrh (for mortality). Possibly for
this reason the verse is often omitted when the hymn appears in English and
American Christmas collections and hymnals.

A literal English translation of Brébeuf’s hymn has been made by John
Steckley Teondecheron; it is perhaps mostly of scholarly interest:

  Have courage, you who are humans;
  Jesus, he is born

  Behold, the spirit, who had us as prisoners, has fled
  Do not listen to it, as it corrupts the spirits of our minds
  Jesus, he is born

  They are spirits, sky people, coming with a message for us
  They are coming to say, "Be on top of life [Rejoice]"
  Marie, she has just given birth. Rejoice"
  Jesus, he is born

  Three have left for such, those who are elders
  Tichion, a star that has just appeared on the horizon leads them there
  He will seize the path, he who leads them there
  Jesus, he is born

  As they arrived there, where he was born, Jesus
  the star was at the point of stopping, not far past it
  Having found someone for them, he says, "Come here!"
  Jesus, he is born

  Behold, they have arrived there and have seen Jesus,
  They made a name [praised] many times, saying "Hurray, he is good in nature."
  They greased his scalp [greeted him with reverence], saying "Hurray."
  Jesus, he is born

  "We will give to him praise for his name,
  Let us show reverence for him as he comes to be compassionate to us.
  It is providential that you love us and wish, ‘I should adopt them.’"
  Jesus, he is born

Mac Robb
Brisbane, Australia

55 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

reddnekk said...

The subject matter was fascinating--it could describe my own
shop. I lack the social framework to understand the
alleged threatening circumstances the poster describes.

But free verse just ain't poetry. It is the lazy man's way
of pretending to write poetry.

Finding rhymes, keeping a meter, and making sense
with the result are hard work--VERY hard.

I was honored by being allowed to study under Prof Harold
Keables at South High School in Denver in the late 40s. Under
his tutelage I wrote poetry, some of which was published in
Scholastic Magazine.

But I went from there to wooing my present wife before
I wrote poetry again (fifty years!)

And I found myself resorting to free verse because, while
I wrote her some proper poetry, free verse is so much
faster, so much easier, so much less demanding on
the composer (and I don't mean "poet;" free verse just
ain't poetry).

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I am pleased to know little bit about him, he was a legendary poet and every poetry of him was fabulous.

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"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." just love these lines..
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