What we know as the “Huron Carol” had an Epiphany beginning
Back in 1993 when Bruce Cockburn first released his album Christmas I was intrigued to discover that he’d chosen to record the well-known “Huron Carol” in its original language. Composed in 1643 by the Jesuit missionary Jean de Brébeuf and widely recognized as being the earliest Canadian Christmas carol, many of us have sung the carol—“Twas in the Moon of Wintertime”—in Jesse Edgar Middleton’s familiar 1926 version. I remember being quite delighted when I first heard Cockburn’s Huron-language version, partly because at the time I was working with a predominantly aboriginal community at Marymound School. How wonderful to be able to share this version with those girls.
Well, if I was intrigued to discover this recording, I was quite taken aback when during the course of a CBC radio broadcast I heard Cockburn read a direct English translation of Brébeuf’s Huron verses. There was no sign of the familiar “lodge of broken bark” with the child wrapped in “ragged robe of rabbit skin,” and no mention of “hunter braves” or of “chiefs from far” bringing “gifts of fox and beaver pelt.” The verses Cockburn offered in this radio broadcast sounded far less quaint and picturesque, and I recall thinking at the time that these were words meant to be sung on the Feast of the Epiphany more than at Christmas.
Being that this was all happening before the days of e-mail, I quickly wrote to Cockburn’s management company, asking if I might get a copy of the translation. In short order a photocopied document arrived, accompanied by a hand-written note wishing me all the best in my work at Marymound.
I pored over the direct English translation rendered by the Huron language scholar John Steckley, and quickly concluded that this was indeed an Epiphany hymn. The carol’s third verse introduces the figures of the magi, or “elders”:
Three have left for such, those who are elders Tichion, a star that has just appeared on the horizon leads them there He will seize the path, he who leads them there Jesus, he is born
It is in the fifth and six verses, however, that the sense of “epiphany” or “manifestation” is really emphasized:
Behold, they have arrived there and have seen Jesus, They praised (made a name) many times, saying “Hurray, he is good in nature.” They greeted him with reverence (greased his scalp many times), saying ‘Hurray’ Jesus, he is born “We will give to him praise for his name, Let us show reverence for him as he comes to be compassionate to us. It is providential that you love us and wish, ‘I should adopt them.’” Jesus, he is born.
These words celebrate the adoption of the Gentiles as sons and daughters of God through the Incarnation. And yes, some might bristle at the words in Brébeuf’s first verse as being disrespectful and dismissive of indigenous Huron religious life—“Behold, the spirit who had us as prisoners has fled / Do not listen to it, as it corrupts the spirits of our minds.” Yet I have very vivid memories of the Dakota Elder Gladys Cook making a very similar observation when speaking to those girls at Marymoud about how a trust in Jesus could stand against the fear that often creeps into our spiritual lives.
In that is found the deepest meaning of Epiphanytide.
- For the full text of John Steckley’s translation from the Huron, click here.
- Thanks to Bramwell Ryan, for the photograph of light in the darkness.