COLUMN: Canada’s first Christmas carol draws inspiration from Huronia roots


The hymn, which was approaching its 500th anniversary, was said to have been composed near the shores of Georgian Bay by a Jesuit priest in what is now Midland

It was in the winter moon when all the birds had fled,
This Mighty Gitchi Manitou sent choirs of angels instead.

These words, we sang them like children on a haunting melody.

I don’t know if we knew him as Huron Carol or Jesous Ahatonhia. But we certainly had no knowledge of its context in a place hundreds of miles away.

The hymn, which was approaching its 500th anniversary, was said to have been composed near the shores of Georgian Bay by a Jesuit priest living in a remote French Jesuit mission called Sainte-Marie with other priests where they worked to spread Catholicism and to share their beliefs with the Huron-Wendat people of the region.

The song was one of our favorites because it was so different from the other tunes we had been taught to sing and, even without musical accompaniment, it kind of touched a chord that other Christmas songs and carols never did. not to do.

Before their light the stars were darkening,
And the wandering hunters hear the hymn;
“Jesus, your King, was born; Jesus was born; in excelsis gloria!

Years later – living not far from modern Midland at the mouth of the River Wye where Jean de Brébeuf is said to have written the holiday message, circa 1641, in the Huron language to convey his deep religious beliefs – I received a sober hardcover publication commemorating this piece of history.

The little book, illustrated by Stanley F. Turner, indicates that the original words were interpreted, untranslated, by journalist Jesse Edgar Middleton in 1926.

It has that distinct scent, like a book you would pull off your grandmother’s shelf that hasn’t been opened in years, if not decades.

Its printer’s stamp on the back suggests it dates back to 1966, and the message on the first page inside says it marked “Canada’s Centennial of Confederation 1967” and the following page includes a before “Premier of Ontario”, John P. Robart.

It tells the meaning of the “Christmas Carol of Canada” as an interpretation of the Nativity story for the Hurons left in a manuscript in Quebec.

Sainte-Marie itself – a walled community long described as the country’s first European settlement with a canal system, hospital, chapel, and living and working areas – was abandoned in an Iroquois attack. It was set on fire and Brébeuf and other priests perished.

The site was recreated with the development of the historic tourist attraction, Sainte-Marie-au-pays-des-Hurons, where the tragic story of the decade-long stay of the Jesuits and their interactions with the local Indigenous peoples who had historically inhabited the region is lively.

Under English music and lyrics by Jesous Ahatonhia, the book compares the tune to God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and cites the belief that it was sung in French on the Christmas carol, Une Jeune Pucelle.

According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, it was translated from the original Huron into French by Paul Picard, an Indian notary in Quebec, then published in the work of Ernest Myrand. Old Christmases of New France in 1907. The English version of Middleton, he adds, was adapted for voice and piano by Healey Willanas as part of the Brébeuf competition and later expanded for choir.

It lists other versions, arrangements and adaptations, largely from the 20th century.

The book tells this story, which has been told in books and movies, with an emphasis on the site itself and the elements it contained, celebrating the newly recreated historic destination.

It is a “plausible story” although without evidence, explains the Canadian Encyclopedia.

Yet he leaves behind this incredible Christmas carol, which endures, having long crossed the lips of schoolchildren across the country.


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