Christmas is filled with special traditions for most of us. We bake and cook favourite foods, visit with family members, attend festive events and Masses, decorate our homes, buy presents, send cards. On the Christmases when we’ve chosen to stay home rather than traveling to join our families, I’ve felt like something is missing. I can imagine that’s how St. Jean de Brebeuf felt during his Christmases in North America, where he wrote his famous Huron Carol.
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St. Jean’s First Christmas in Huronia
St. Jean de Brebeuf first arrived in Huronia (present-day Ontario, Canada) in 1625. He spent his next three Christmases there with two fellow French priests and the Hurons (or Wendat) they sought to befriend. They said Mass in a tiny hut instead of a soaring cathedral. Instead of pipe organs and choirs, they had children’s voices raised in song. Their food consisted of the corn, beans, and squash that the Hurons grew in their fields, as well as game they hunted in the forests.
It was nothing like the Christmas traditions St. Jean had grown up with in France, nor even what we are used to today. I have never spent a Christmas entirely by myself, but I can imagine how he felt, so far from family during this season. We don’t know much about St. Jean’s childhood, whether he was an only child or one of many (as St. Isaac Jogues was), and whether his parents were still alive when he sailed for New France. Did he imagine familiar scenes “back home” as he stared into a smoky fire in Huronia?
Every Christmas of my childhood was spent with my dad’s side of the family—my grandparents, aunt, and uncles. We played endless rounds of cards and everyone had a “thank-you” helping of Grandma’s Christmas pudding (and more shortbread cookies than they’d admit) and there was joking and stories and fun. It’s that rowdiness I miss when my husband and I haven’t made the drive from BC back to Alberta with our kids for the holidays.
During the Christmas season, we tend to focus upon the baby in the manger, the wise men who came to see him, the shepherds and the angel choirs. In January, we pack up our Nativity scenes and return to our normal lives and forget what the Holy Family endured after their first Christmas. Jesus, Mary and Joseph soon found themselves far away, in a strange land, just as St. Jean de Brebeuf was. Perhaps as he ate his corn gruel, he thought of Jesus as a toddler, celebrating his birthday in Egypt.
In 1629, St. Jean and his fellow missionaries were forced to leave New France because of war between England and France. He returned in 1634 to spend the next fifteen years with the Hurons. Sometimes in the 1640s, St. Jean wrote the Huron Carol. By then, he was fluent in the Huron language and had written a grammar and dictionary to help his fellow missionaries.
He knew also that the Hurons loved singing. His fellow Jesuit missionary, St. Antoine Daniel, had been extremely successful in teaching the Huron children to sing the Creed, Our Father, and Hail Mary in their own language. They chanted these songs everywhere they went, thus taking the faith even to the Hurons who wouldn’t speak to the missionaries.
A New Christmas Carol
So St. Jean wrote the Huron Carol. He set it to the tune of an old French folk song, as he “believed that the tone and rhythm of this song would be pleasing to the discriminating musical tastes of the Wendat, a group that had a very rich musical culture” (Anishinabek News). The song was not only written in Huron but also used images and ideas that St. Jean’s flock would have been familiar with.
Have courage, you who are humans.
Jesus, He is born.
Behold, it has fled, the spirit who had us as prisoner.
Do not listen to it, as it corrupts our minds, the spirit of our thoughts.
They are spirits, coming with a message for us, the sky people.
They are coming to say,
‘Come on, be on top of life, rejoice!’
‘Mary has just given birth, come on, rejoice.’
‘Three have left for such a place;
they are men of great matter.’
‘A star that has just appeared over the horizon leads them there.’
‘He will seize the path,
a star that leads them there.’
As they arrived there,
where He was born, Jesus.
The star was at the point of stopping,
He was not far past it.
Having found someone for them,
He says, ‘Come here.’
Behold, they have arrived there and have seen Jesus.
They praised a name many times saying,
‘Hurray, He is good in nature.’
They greeted Him with respect,
oiling His scalp many times, saying, ‘Hurray!’
‘We will give to Him honour to His name.’
‘Let us oil His scalp many times, show reverence for Him,
as He comes to be compassionate with us.’
It is providential that you love us,
and think ‘I should make them part of My family.’
The hut in which he wrote the Huron Carol may have been more like the stable in which Jesus was born than the home or cathedrals St. Jean knew in France. Like him, Mary and Joseph had traveled a long way. And like them, St. Jean wasn’t always welcomed. Perhaps, as he lay on the dirt floor next to the fire, penning his words about a baby having his head oiled with respect, St. Jean knew how Mary and Joseph felt, laying on the ground next to their baby in the cattle’s hay bin.
The Huron Carol’s Legacy
The Huron Carol was very popular with St. Jean’s flock. Even after the Iroquois destroyed the Huron villages and the Jesuit missions, the song survived. The Hurons who escaped (much as the Holy Family escaped King Herod’s soldiers) and found new homes in present-day Quebec kept singing the carol. It was written down nearly a century later by another priest, and translated into French and then English. It has since been sung by many famous singers, including Burl Ives and Bruce Cockburn.
Today, the song written by a priest far from home is part of the Christmas traditions for many of us. Unfortunately, the English translation of the Huron Carol that many of us know and love doesn’t accurately reflect what St. Jean wrote. Recently, there’s been an effort to return to the original version of the song, and various groups have recorded the Huron Carol in Indigenous languages.
Toronto scholar John Steckley is one of the last speakers of the Huron language, who has studied St. Jean’s work. He says, “He’s always been my favourite because he was the first European to crack the language” (The Catholic Register). The above version of the Huron Carol is his translation of St. Jean’s writing.
The carol really does reflect the culture, it’s unique in that. I don’t know anything in any Indigenous language that reflects both European Christianity and the Wendat culture. It reflects the two so well. It’s beautiful in that sense and Brébeuf was a real border crosser when it came to that sort of thing. He could stand in both cultures. ~ John Steckley
As we celebrate Christmas this year, think about traditions new and old. If you are alone during this holiday season, reflect on St. Jean de Brebeuf in New France or the Holy Family in Egypt, and ask them to pray for you. If you are surrounded by family this Christmas, reach out to someone who may not have anywhere else to go.
May the words St. Jean penned so long ago inspire you with the message of the Gospel—a message for everyone, everywhere, about a little baby who comes to bring love.
Are you spending Christmas with your family or by yourself? What are your favourite Christmas carols and traditions?
The Huron Carol has been beautifully illustrated in several picture books which make great additions to your Christmas reading. I also included it in North American Martyrs Kids Activity Book for kids to reflect on St. Jean’s writing.
I’m taking the next few weeks off for the Christmas holidays. I’ll be blogging less in the new year and devoting more time to writing books instead, including a Canadian Saints Kids Activity Book. Follow @kidssaintbook on Instagram for updates about that project or make sure you’re subscribed to my email newsletter. Have a blessed Christmas and new year!