Christmas in Context: The Huron Carol

“Within a lodge of broken bark
The tender Babe was found,
A ragged robe of rabbit skin
Enwrapp'd His beauty round;
But as the hunter braves drew nigh,
The angel song rang loud and high.”

It’s a strange verse to find in the Methodist hymnal, but there it is.  Title: “Twas in the Moon of Wintertime” or “The Huron Carol.”  And it makes you wonder:  baby Jesus in “rabbit skins?” Wise men as “hunter braves?”  Does the Nativity story work with different details? Does the Gospel preach in language you can understand?  I would say that’s the only language that really works. After all, what good is heilsgeschicte if you have no idea what it means?  In case you’re wondering, it’s the theological term for “Salvation History,” tracing God’s redemptive work throughout the events of human history, and the truth is that every book of the Bible presents God’s “saving work” in language that could be understood in a particular context, to a particular group of people in a particular time and place, making the divine mystery accessible.  So “The Huron Carol” has more in common with the Bible than we might think.

Jean de Brébeuf gave his life as a missionary spreading the Gospel to the Huron people in Canada in the 1600s.  Embracing the Jesuit motto of “finding God in all things,” Brébeuf met the people where they were, learning their native language and even writing the first Huron dictionary.  He took a French song and re-wrote the lyrics in Huron, creating “The Huron Carol” as a way to present the Christmas Nativity story in terms that the Huron people could understand, bringing alive the Gospel truth that “Jesus your king is born” with familiar symbols and cultural ideas.  The hymn must have resonated with the people because after Brébeuf and his community were attacked by the Iroquois, killing Brébeuf and destroying his mission, the song resurfaced in Quebec among migrant survivors, presumably becoming a part of their oral tradition. Inspired by his story, musicians in more recent times translated Brébeuf’s lyrics into French and English, and the song is now widely celebrated as the first Canadian carol.  Brébeuf was canonized in 1930, becoming the patron saint of Canada.

So the details are different.  Yet the spirit of Truth is there.  “Come kneel before the radiant boy, who brings you beauty, peace, and joy.”  Haven’t we all experienced Christ on our own terms? In language that we understand?  To me that’s the power of Christ: he can speak the same Gospel Truth to me, to you, to everyone, and though the words might be different each time, the message is the same.

~Justin

THE HURON CAROL

'Twas in the Moon of Winter Time
Jesous Ahatonhia

Saint Jean de Brébeuf (25 March 1593 – 16 March 1649), a Jesuit priest, 1643
English Translation by Jesse Edgar Middleton, 1926

1. 'Twas in the moon of winter-time
When all the birds had fled,
That mighty Gitchi Manitou
Sent angel choirs instead;
Before their light the stars grew dim,
And wandering hunter heard the hymn:

Refrain:
"Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born,
In excelsis gloria."

2. Within a lodge of broken bark
The tender Babe was found,
A ragged robe of rabbit skin
Enwrapp'd His beauty round;
But as the hunter braves drew nigh,
The angel song rang loud and high. Refrain

3. O children of the forest free,
O sons 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. Refrain