Worship at St John’s the Evangelist in Edinburgh this morning we were introduced to some new hymns, the one that was most intriguing was the Huron Carol.
The “Huron Carol” (or “Twas in the Moon of Wintertime”) is a Canadian Christmas hymn (Canada’s oldest Christmas song), written probably in 1642 by Jean de Brébeuf, a Jesuit missionary at Sainte-Marie among the Hurons in Canada. Brébeuf wrote the lyrics in the native language of the Huron/Wendat people; the song’s original Huron title is “Jesous Ahatonhia” (“Jesus, he is born”). The song’s melody is based on a traditional French folk song, “Une Jeune Pucelle” (“A Young Maid”). The well-known English lyrics were written in 1926 by Jesse Edgar Middleton, and the copyright to these lyrics was held by The Frederick Harris Music Co., Limited, but entered the public domain in 2011.
The English version of the hymn uses imagery familiar in the early 20th century, in place of the traditional Nativity story. This version is derived from Brebeuf’s original song and Huron religious concepts. In the English version, Jesus is born in a “lodge of broken bark”, and wrapped in a “robe of rabbit skin”. He is surrounded by hunters instead of shepherds, and the Magi are portrayed as “chiefs from afar” that bring him “fox and beaver pelts” instead of the more familiar gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The hymn also uses a traditional Algonquian name, Gitchi Manitou, for God. The original lyrics are now sometimes modified to use imagery accessible to Christians who are not familiar with Native-Canadian cultures.
’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
Enwrapp’d His beauty round;
But as the hunter braves drew nigh,
The angel song rang loud and high:
The earliest moon of wintertime
Is not so round and fair
As was the ring of glory on
On the helpless Infant there.
The chiefs from far before Him knelt
With gifts of fox and beaver pelt.
O children of the forest free,
Beloved 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.