Lesson #328: The Huron Carol

I mentioned in my last lesson that The Huron Carol is my favourite Christmas carol ever. Until just now, this was both true and untrue. Musically, I love it. But historically speaking, I had a bit of a hard time with it in that it’s a blatant attempt to subvert the native culture and religion and replace it with the western ideal of Christianity. But at the same time, it exists in three languages (English, French, and the Huron language of Wendat). So I was torn…

The Huron Carol is Canada’s — and, by extension, North America’s — oldest Christmas carol. Its lyrics were written in Wendat in 1642 or 1643 by the Jesuit missionary Jean de Brébeuf,* and are set to an adaptation of the traditional French tune of “Une jeune pucelle,”** (1557), which is itself an alteration of a slightly earlier folk song, “Une jeune fillette.” 

Until 1926, there were no English lyrics to this carol, which I actually find very, very interesting. How did it take nearly 300 years to record this? And…it turns out that the English version of the lyrics that are at the root of my “subversion of the Huron culture” qualms about this hymn aren’t even remotely close to the literal translation from the Wendat. The literal translation are far less “ACCEPT JESUS AS YOUR LORD AND SAVIOUR!” than the lyrics I know. Which makes me happy.*** I can (mostly) appreciate that the missionaries who were immersed in the culture were able to compose lyrics that maintained a connection with the culture the Hurons knew while simultaneously weaving in the Christian narrative we all know. It’s an impressive skill to have, being able to merge cultures without seeming like a condescending douche.

Musically, I find the piece interesting in that it’s not interesting at all; its range is only an octave. I imagine it’s the simplicity that attracts me, and I find that kind of funny given my great love of Wagner. It amuses me that I can simultaneously have a deep love something as simple as this carol and something as complex as Wagner, but I suppose those two things are ingrained in different parts of my psyche. It’s okay for Christmas to be simple, but opera is much less forgiving.

For more information, see here, here (this link has the literal translation of the Wendat lyrics), here, and here.

*who is, incidentally, one of the eight Canadian martyrs. That there are eight Canadian martyrs — all of whom were Jesuits working among the Huron who were tortured and killed by the Iroquois in the Huron-Iroquois war in the mid 17th century — is a piece of information I’ve been carrying in my pocket for ages. It is one of the literal handful of parts of my poor grasp of Canadian history. But I can’t tell you why I know anything about the Huron-Iroquois war at all. I probably picked up a thread of related information years ago and followed it until I wound up with a relatively deep knowledge thereof. That seems like my style. Honestly, I’d be hard pressed to name you someone I know other than my mother — with whom I like to share random information because I didn’t just wake up one day with a thirst for random knowledge — who knows that there ever was a war between the Huron and the Iroquois.

**There’s a recording here.

***I grew up Anglican, and Anglicans are poor prosthelytizers. For more on this, see Eddie Izzard’s brilliant take on Anglicanism. Bonus points to Izzard for addressing the fact that the Anglicans are part of the Catholic church, not the Protestant movement. When this routine was released, I was 19 or 20 and just out from under living with my parents — and therefore being forced to attend church — and his take on “Oh God Our Help in Ages Past” had me howling. Cake or death is phenomenal. The whole routine is gold, but the religious aspects are absolutely brilliant.

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