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by Joanne Mikola
December 5, 2000
Anglican Church's Hymn 745
Indian words (Huron) by St. Jean de Brébeuf
(c.1643) Tr. (1926) by Jesse Edgar Middleton
'Twas in the
moon of winter-time,
Within a lodge
moon of wintertime
O children of
following is a literal translation of the Huron Carol from the Huron to
Translation by John Steckley/Teondecheron :
are humans; Jesus, he is born
people, coming with a message for us
Jesus, he is born
left for such,
those who are elders
where he was born,
there and have seen Jesus,
Jesus, he is born
"We will give
to him praise
for his name,
settles over the silhouetted tree line in the distance, evening song
around me. The plaintiff trill of the loon echoes along the shoreline,
accompanied by the mesmerizing repetitiveness of the water lapping on
beach. A sudden splash of a jumping fish seems to punctuate the peace.
Leaves of the poplar stand applaud the efforts of an offshore breeze.
sand beneath my hands is warm, still, from its hoarded harvest, the
grains a touchstone to ages past.
It is not hard to imagine the haunting qualities of the Huron Christmas Carol, even in the midst of summer heat. Here, on the shores of Lake Huron's Georgian Bay, you can watch the last rays of the day hover over Christian Island, the first refugee stop of the Huron Indian tribe's flight from the swarming Iroquois advance. One can only imagine the tensions of the era in all their faceted glories and defeats. This song actually predates the formation of the country, Canada. Other than explorers and fur traders, it was written before any community of pioneers learned to adapt to the isolation and challenges that were present in the Native war zone north of the St. Lawrence River.
Though the French sponsors dreamed of colonization, the hardships of cruel weather, constantly warring Indian tribes and English trade and territory competition from the south, made for a very unstable environment to entice volunteers. The prerequisite of Catholicism was another limiting factor. Future generations of Native and potential mixed marriages were to be grounded in the Catholic faith, first, with their migration and re-population of future Catholics a means to spread the Word. Fr. Jean de Brébeuf was the first of 30 Jesuits missionaries to hazard the Atlantic crossing from the continent to New France with Samuel de Champlain. He spent a turbulent 24 years dedicated to the Jesuit cause and the people of the Hurons, the Wyandot tribe.
While exploring the vast resources of the internet, a remarkable story unfolds. Brébeuf not only lived a life dedicated to both Church and any community he was a part of, but he had the foresight to document his experiences and forward them to his superiors in Quebec. The annual reports, or the 'Jesuit Relations', were originally intended as private correspondence between outpost missions and the Provincial in Paris, but their value as teaching tools for both Jesuits to follow, and the people, especially the school children, of France, were immediately recognized and used.
His methods of both teaching and learning must have been effective. He earned the name "Echon", meaning 'one who carries burdens' or 'load bearer' by the Wyandot/Huron tribe. His ability to 'pitch in' and be recognized as a contributing member of the host society without sacrificing any religious dictates speaks of adapting to one's environment and being able to use the resources at hand. One of his own quotes confirms this:
come to us (he writes) we will receive you with open arms into the
dwelling imaginable. A mat, or at best a skin, will be your bed and
enough you will not sleep at all because of the vermin that will swarm
over you. If you have been a great theologian in France, you will have
to be a humble scholar here and taught by an unlearned person, or by
while you furnish them no end of amusement. The Huron tongue will be
Thomas and Aristotle, and you will be happy if after a great deal of
study you are able to stammer out a few words. The winter is almost
As for leisure time, the Hurons will give you no rest night or day."
This student/educator, in this one song, was able to show how 2 cultures could blend familiar and unfamiliar into a meaningful triumph. These Hurons, surrounded by water, trees and winter, would grapple with a word picture of Bethlehem, perpetual desert, and arid heat. So a different, familiar landscape is used. It does not change the meaning and significance of the birth of Jesus, just a location. Nomads they could understand, though they themselves were not a migrating tribe. Chiefs and hunters were understood and respected, but reverence beyond respect was also a concept that might have handicapped further religious devotion. They might adopt a Brave rather than torture and kill him, but his merits must have been outstanding for that honour to be awarded.
Brébeuf's dedication to martyrdom was not just spiritual, but physical. In his diaries, he noted how easy it was to find ways, daily, to pursue his personal rituals of testing, suffering and searching for that elusive finality. With a final concerted effort in 1649, the Iroquois overwhelmed the entire Huronia district. On March 16, the fifty six year old Brébeuf died at the torturing hands of the invading Iroquois at St. Ignace. The invasion resulted in a mass exodus of the Hurons to island sanctuaries, like Joseph (Christian) Island, north to Manitoulin, and west across Champlain's Freshwater Sea (Lake Huron) into Michigan. The Word fled with them and was indeed assimilated into the following generations, but at the instigation of the Iroquois, rather than the French.
Brébeuf was canonized in 1930 with seven other missionaries who are collectively called the North American martyrs. His hand wrought coffin was unearthed in 1956 at Fort Ste. Marie, Midland, Ontario. Prior excavations had missed his remains owing largely to the fact that even though careful documentation of the life at the Central Mission House and compound was well preserved, the actual size of the areas involved had been severely underestimated. St. Jean de Brébeuf holds many honours: the first Apostle to the Hurons, the first true ethnographer of the New World, and the Patron Saint of Canada. Celebrate his life in perpetual memory on October 19, his Feast Day.
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