Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Huron Carol or Twas in the Moon of Wintertime— Murfin Winter Holidays Music Festival 2022-23

A Canadian Christmas hymn based on a French folk song with original lyrics written by St. John de Brebeuf, SJ, sung by the Canadian Tenors. Also called Twas in the Moon of Wintertime.

Yesterday for Native American Heritage Month we shared a traditional Lakota Winter Song.   Today we turn to a First Nations Christmas Carol.  The Huron Carol, also known as Twas in the Moon of Wintertime is a Canadian Christmas hymn. It is Canada’s oldest Christmas song), probably written in 1642 by Jean de Brébeuf, a Jesuit missionary at Sainte-Marie among the Hurons. Brébeuf wrote the lyrics in the native language of the Huron/Wendat people.   The song's original Huron title is Jesous AhatonhiaJesus, he is born. The melody is based on a traditional French folk song, Une Jeune Pucelle or A Young Maid.

The English version of the hymn uses imagery familiar in the early 20th Century, in lieu of the traditional Nativity story.  This version is derived from Brébeuf’s original song and Huron religious concepts.  In the English version, Jesus is born in a “lodge of broken bark” and wrapped in a robe of rabbit skin.  He is surrounded by hunters instead of shepherds, and the Magi are portrayed as “chiefs from afar” who bring him fox and beaver pelts instead of the more familiar gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

                                        One of many Canadian First Nations icons of the Madonna and Child.

This English translation uses a traditional Algonquian name, Gitchi Manitou, for God, which is not in the original Wyandot version. The original lyrics are now sometimes modified to use imagery accessible to Christians who are not familiar with aboriginal Canadian cultures.  The song remains a common Christmas hymn in Canadian churches of many Christian denominations. It is also found in several American hymnals, including The Hymnal 1982 of The Episcopal Church, The United Methodist Hymnal, and Evangelical Lutheran Worship (#284).

Brébeuf was killed in the 1639 uprising by the Algonquin-speaking Mohawks against the Jesuit missionaries and the Huron.  For his martyrdom he was canonized a Saint in in 1930.

Martyrdom of Father Isaac Jogues S.J. Jogues and Brébeuf were two of eight Jesuits martyred over several years in North America during their missionary work in the 1600s, and were canonized together in 1930. 

A surviving eyewitness described his execution:

The Iroquois heated hatchets until they were glowing red and, tying them together, strung them across his shoulders, searing his flesh. They wrapped his torso with bark and set it afire. They cut off his nose, lips and forced a hot iron down his throat, and poured boiling water over his head in a gruesome imitation of baptism. They scalped him, and cut off his flesh while he was alive. Finally, someone buried a hatchet in his jaw.

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