The Huron Carol

“The Huron Carol” is the popular name for a Christmas song written in the language of the Wendat, an indigenous people of Canada — their name meaning “people of the island” or “dwellers on a peninsula” — nicknamed “Huron” (“boar’s head”) by French explorers and traders due to the bristly hairstyle of Wendat men.

The song began as a tool for teaching and converting the Wendat to Christianity, and it was likely written in the early 1640s by the French Jesuit missionary, Jean de Brébeuf. In Wendat, the song is titled “Jesous Ahatonnia,” which means “Jesus is Born.” The song’s melody is based on a traditional French folk song, “Une Jeune Pucelle” (“A Young Maid”).

Jean de Brébeuf’s lyrics present the Nativity story using images and ideas that would have been familiar to the Wendat. Angels are “spirits” and “sky people”; the Magi (wise men) are “elders,” and as an act of reverence they oil Jesus’ scalp, a practice Wendat people would have recognized.

Today, “The Huron Carol’s” most well-known lyrics, beginning ‘“Twas in the moon of winter-time,” were written by Canadian poet Jesse Middleton and published in 1927 in a small illustrated book titled “The First Canadian Christmas Carol.”

Middleton’s text is not a translation, but a complete rewriting of “Jesous Ahatonnia” for English speakers, and bears almost no relation to the original Wendat text. Middleton relied on stereotypes, critics say, painting a picture of an indigenous Nativity in a “lodge of broken bark,” with “hunter braves” replacing shepherds, and “gifts of fur and beaver pelt” delivered by “chiefs from far.” Still, the carol has long been popular, perhaps in part due to its refrain, “Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born. In excelsis gloria!” and its pairing with the easily singable “Une Jeune Pucelle” tune.

This arrangement for brass quintet takes a contemplative, lyrical approach, featuring rich harmonies to the chant-like tune and contrasts in dynamics and tempo that evoke both the quiet peace and solemnity accompanying the birth of Christ.

Score, parts (Bb tpt. 1, Bb tpt. 2, F horn, tbn, tuba) — $12.99

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