In 1743, a 36-year old priest named Pierre-Phillip Potier came to the mission of Lorette to learn the Huron language. The following June, having acquired a basic knowledge of it, he was sent to the small predominantly Wyandotte mission on Bois Blanc Island, near Detroit. Potier’s work was successful: The church of the Huron-Wyandottes, later relocated to the south shore of the Detroit River and named L’Assomption, became the earliest Roman Catholic Church in Ontario. Yet the priest was only carrying on a centuries-old dictum that sought to gather souls through the words and music of the people. By the time he prepared his Christmas Day homily, in 1746, the Huron Carol had already been sung for nearly 100 years.
Many consider the Huron Carol to be Canada’s first Christmas song. Purportedly written in the early 1640’s by the Jesuit Jean de Brébeuf, it took the tune of an old folk song, called Une Jeune Pucelle. Brébeuf believed that the tone and rhythm of this song would be pleasing to the discriminating musical tastes of the Wendat, a group that had a very rich musical culture. Dr. John Steckley, an authority on the Wendat language, pointed out that the Wendats used single words to convey intricate concepts such as singing to pass the time [end8tsihat], singing a war song [atonront] and to sing for a social purpose [atsi]. The actions of song, dance, prayer and spell all shared the same word [rend], showing how important and interrelated those four activities were for this community. So it remained imperative that Brébeuf use music and song to reach his people. And thus he wrote the first lines of this iconic hymn:
Estennialon de tson8e Ies8s ahatonnia
Onna8ate8a d’oki n’on8andask8aentak
Ennonchien sk8strihotat n’on8andilonrachatha
Aloki onkinnhache eronhialeronnon
Ah-yok-kee on-kee-nha-sheh eh-ron-hyah-yeh-ron-non
Iontonk ontatiande ndio sen tsatonnharonnion
We know that Brébeuf was a language scholar and fluent in Wendat, having spent many years studying the language, and compiling dictionaries and catechisms as he learned. But according to Steckley, the Huron Carol surpassed these earlier lexicons in its sophistication and depth of understanding of the Wendat language. Brébeuf’s fluency enabled him to “reach deep into the language and culture of the Huron people” in order to tell the Christmas story. Existing accounts suggest that the song remained popular among Christian Hurons well past Brébeuf’s time and was passed through the generations.
So how did such a rich and meaningful hymn devolve from a Wendat’s joyous proclamation of “Have courage you who are humans Jesus, he is born”. [Estennialon de tson8e Ies8s ahatonnia] “Behold the spirit who has us as prisoners, domestic animals, has fled”[Onna8ate8a d’oki n’on8andask8aentak] to the variation we know today bereft of any Wendat words and containing only two words in Ojibwa?
T’was in the moon of wintertime when all the birds had fled, that Mighty Gitchi Manitou sent angel choirs instead.
We learn from Dr. Steckley’s scholarship that Father Etienne Thomas de Villeneuve Girault, the last Jesuit to attend the Hurons of Lorette committed the tune to paper for the first time probably in the later half of the 18th century. He wrote:
Have courage, you who are humans, Jesus, he is born
Behold, the spirit who had us as prisoners, domestic animals, has fled
Do not listen to it, as it corrupts our minds, the spirit of thoughts
They are spirits, coming with a message for us, the sky people
They are coming to say, “Be on top of life, rejoice!”
Mary has just given birth, come one, rejoice”
Girault’s translation, with phrasing such as “the spirit of thoughts” continued the attempt to convey the Christmas story within the complexities of Wendat words.
The essence of the carol changed dramatically with the 1899 publication of Paul Tsa8enhohi Picard’s version. Picard, a Wendat Chief at Jeunne Lorette and one of the last people of his generation to be fluent in the language translated the song into French. Steckley maintains Picard’s was not really a translation of the true content of the song but rather reflected that gentleman’s own interpretation and religious views. Here, Picard ‘modernizes’ the carol. Humans are now just men, spirits become angels and new words like Holy Ghost are introduced. Instead of the natives imploring Jesus to love them and make them part of his family, God wishes only that the faithful become ‘saints’.
Thirty years later, the Canadian poet Jesse Edgar Middleton offered his own interpretation of the song and his version remains the most played over the airwaves and at Christmas pageants across Canada. Middleton, the son of a Methodist minister, was born in Wellington County. Steckley tells us that there is no proof that Middleton was acquainted with any aboriginal people and although he is often credited as translating the carol, it would be more accurate to say that he made up new words for it. Phrasing that some critics, including Bruce Cockburn, have dismissed as “atrocious.”
But for years now there has been an increasing desire on the part of choirs and individual artists to sing the song in its original Wendat, what Steckley refers to as the re-indigenizing of the piece. As well, the song has been translated into Mi’kmaw and Plains Cree.
A quick YouTube search will provide a track of La Jeune Pucelle. It’s haunting and beautiful but only a willing listener can pick out the rudiments of the Huron Carol, as the latter has been shaped by so many voices throughout the generations. Perhaps, along with the Huron dictionaries and compendiums he brought from Lorette, Father Potier might have taught the Huron-Wyandottes this song. Or quite possibly they taught it to him.
The author would like to thank Dr. John Steckley, Humber College, Toronto for sharing his paper Huron Carol: A Canadian cultural chameleon, British Journal of Canadian Studies, vol. 27, no. 1, pp. 54-74 with her.
Listen to Kelly Lee Evans sing the Huron Carol here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-ZSuQsaj_o&feature=youtu.be