Jesous Ahatonhia, aka the “Huron Carol,” is considered to be Canada’s first Christmas song. Originally composed by French Jesuit priest Jean de Brebeuf in the early 1640s. Though Brebeuf worked with Wendat people to learn their language and involved Wendat musical influences, the legacy of the song was marred both by the dominance of the colonial church and church participation in the diminishing of the Wendat language and the decimation and scattering of the Wendat people and their culture.
If Brébeuf made a written copy, it’s been lost. The song survived in oral tradition through the 18th and 19th centuries in the Quebec enclave where the Wendat fled to after their dispersal (there are also Wyandot populations in the U.S.). The tune was committed to paper -- for the first time probably-- in the latter half of the 18th C., with French lyrics.
Quite likely you know the song as “Twas in the Moon of Wintertime.” That’s the Jesse Edgar Middleton version with its evocative opening lines, written in 1927. Despite his claim to the contrary, his isn’t a translation in any way, but rather a rewrite. An interpretation by another non-Indigenous man with his time and culture’s view of Indigenous people.
One could say the “Huron Carol” written by a French colonial priest about Huron people (Wendat) is not really a Huron carol. As responses in Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation there’ve been strong critiques. Key critiques I see of existing texts include:
- a white man’s imaginary of Indigenous people with a romanticized retelling of the nativity,
- a pan-Indigenous view of Canada’s first peoples which separates them -- and also other Canadians-- from the distinctive cultures and traditions that grew out of their relationship with land and place.
- Indigenous Christians today studying the song texts have expressed the feeling this song was asking them to be Christian instead of Indigenous, rather than celebrating the co-existence of two identities.
There’ve been attempts to re-Indigenize the piece, also to sing the song in its original Wendat. The efforts to rework Jesous Ahatonhia respectfully are works in progress, but they teach a willing step.
If it’s the beautiful, enchanting and haunting tune you’re drawn to, know its use is also being revived.
What say, sing, see ye?