THE HURON CAROL: a special Christmas feature

Today is a departure from my usual post where I feature a recent acquisition, and talk about it and  the artist who created it.

I want instead to talk about a Christmas Carol that is unique to Canada and to the First Nations people who were the original inhabitants of the land, and whose art I collect.

During the first half of the 17th century, and also prior to that, European settlement was thinly spread along the Atlantic Seaboard, the Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico and sovereignty was divided anong the French, English, Spanish, Basque, Dutch and Swedish trading settlements that sprang up and sometimes failed just as quickly.

Success in these trading ventures was usually related to how well the Native population could be persuaded to assist the adventurers in their businesses.

The French seemed better able to adapt to the First Nations way of life and also invested a great deal of energy in recruiting  the population to convert to Christianity, and wherever they settled or travelled, they seemed to integrate the First Nations adaptations more readily into their view of the world than did their competitors.

So, by the end of the first quarter of the 17th century, Jesuit missionaries were widely spread in a westerly and north westerly direction in French Canada, and had fanned out from the seaports of Quebec and Montreal up the Ottawa River and into the river and lake system of mid-central Ontario. Around 1639 they were tasked by the Jesuit order in France with establishing a mission outpost at Ste. Marie among the Hurons, close to present-day Midland, Ontario on Georgian Bay. From there individual priests traveled a circuit from village to village, preaching and converting, and administering the sacraments. 

By 1649 the Huron nation had become decimated by tribal warfare which had been made more deadly by European weaponry, and by diseases brought by the Europeans to a group of peoples who had no immunity to them;  and in their weakened condition the Huron were overrun by the Iroquois, and their settlements including Ste. Marie emptied. In total, 8 Jesuit priests in the various communities, including Jean de Brebeuf, were martyred; while those Hurons who survived fled to Quebec. It is said that the victorious Iroquois ritually ate Brebeuf’s heart in order to acquire some of his fortitude in facing torture and death. 

It was later decided by remaining Jesuits t0 destroy the settlement at Ste. Marie rather than have it in the hands of the Iroquois.

Father Jean de Brebeuf was born March 25, 1593  in Normandy and was educated in Caen. He was delayed in his ordination when tuberculosis interrupted his studies, and he resumed them after a successful recovery. He left for Quebec in 1625, settling among the Hurons and applying himself to learning their customs and language. In 1643 he wrote a hymn we call the Huron Carol, using concepts and descriptions that would have meaning for a nomadic hunter/gatherer people who relied on agriculture only in a limited way, and domesticated no animals other than dogs. The language used, of course, was Huron/Wendat: the title being Jesous Ahatonhia. The haunting melody was based on a traditional French Folksong called “Une Jeune Poucelle” (a young maiden)

The English lyrics were written and published in 1926 by Jesse Edgar Middleton and are still under copyright.

The use of this carol has spread among the First Nations of Canada and been translated into many of their languages: here it is in Mi’kmaw, the language most common among east coast Mi’kmaw and Malecite people.

Canadian singer Bruce Cockburn, the group Crash Test Dummies, Burl Ives in the USA have all recorded the Huron Carol; and more recently Tom Jackson, the First Nations actor and musician, who made it his trademark  during the 17 years that he toured the show “Huron Carole” with other performers across Canada to raise money for Canadian Food Banks.

More recently, there was a small book and cd, brilliantly illustrated by Moses Beaver of the fly-in community of Nibinamik, 500 miles north of Thunder Bay in North Western Ontario; poetry by David Bouchard, a prairie Metis; and translated and musically interpreted by Susan Aglukark into Inuktitut. This is a book that despite its appeal aimed to children, transcends age and appeals to adults as well. (Much in the same way that Antoine de St.Exupery’s Le Petit Prince has done.)


The Christmas stamps isued by Canada Post in 1977 are depicted below – they were created by children’s book illustrator Ronald G. White.

Another departure from my usual style of post is my desire to share with one of my readers the gift of a copy of the book and cd illustrated at the top of this post.

MY GIVEAWAY: comment on this post between now and December 31, 2010  and on the stroke of midnight I will do a draw using to ensure fairness – please make sure you leave your email address in the comment so I can notify the winner. Only one comment per person please and good luck! Open to any person wherever Canada Post mails parcels.



8 responses to “THE HURON CAROL: a special Christmas feature

  1. Stroke of midnight Ill be up looking for Santa Merry Christmas

  2. What an interesting post you wrote. I learned a lot of things by reading it tonight. I would be very glad to win your giveaway, a really nice Christmas gift to receive.
    Wishing you the best for 2011

  3. i love your site; was directed to it through quilting with jane … i lived in vanderhoof, bc for a while …. i love all things canadian …. my hubbs went salmon fishing in oct and brought me home a jacket — not just *any jacket* but a red one with CANADA and some maple leaves emblazoned across the shoulders (i guess i should add i live in the us now — 22 years in canada!

    the huron carol is one of my favorite stories, as well as one of my favorite pieces of music …. i hope i win this lovely gift; i would surely appreciate it …. thank you for the opportunity … merry christmas …..

  4. This is a fascinating post. I’ve known the Huron carol for years without knowing its history, so thank you for sharing it. How extraordinarily brave those missionary priests must have been.

  5. I never knew about this as I am new to Canada from Australia. Now upon hearing about this I think I am going to read more into it. My sister in-law studies Aboriginal affairs at University of Toronto among Politics and others classes that I don’t really recall at the moment. I wonder if she has heard of this? I think I shall ask her. Thanks for the great giveaway!

  6. Pingback: Winter Holiday Activities in Canada, as seen through the eyes of the artist | Redkettle's Blog

  7. Do you know where one could get a high definition copy of the picture of the natives visiting Mary and the Christ Child? (You have a copy of it just below the link I’ll try and check back here, but I’d prefer if you could email me.


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