Two versions of Canada’s oldest Christmas carol tell very different stories about the Nativity—and Indigenous people
What is the point of a Christmas carol? Sure, it sounds great when it’s playing in the background at Starbucks or your office Christmas party, but stepping back, what is it for? What’s it meant to do?
In a way the answer to that question depends on where you’re standing. A pop star today might tell you they recorded a certain carol because they wanted to share something they were feeling. Meanwhile their manager and label did it to sell albums. Fans listen because they like the singer or their take on the song. The big box store has it playing during the holidays because when people feel happy and nostalgic they buy more stuff. And if it’s a Christian song, a parish music director might include it at midnight Mass because it reflects something of the mystery or wonder of what we’re celebrating. Our take on a given carol emerges from where we’re standing.
What is the point of a Christmas carol? Sure, it sounds great when it’s playing in the background at Starbucks or your office Christmas party, but stepping back, what is it for?
There’s probably no Christmas carol where this issue is more evident than “Jesous Ahatonhia,” (“Jesus, He Is Born”), which is known today as the Huron Carol. For its original writer, the 17th-century French missionary Jacques de Brébeuf, S.J., the hymn was meant to be educational. We don’t often think of carols today as a form of evangelization, but of course they are. They teach us stories of Jesus, and do so in a format that is both easy to remember and, if you have a strong enough melody, hard to forget. De Brébeuf had been working with the Indigenous Huron people for years, had learned the Wendat language and wanted to give the people a carol of their own, in their own language, by which to understand and remember what we celebrate at Christmas.
In the 1920s, Jesse Edgar Middleton, a white Canadian poet, choir director and journalist who was interested in de Brébeuf decided to rewrite the text, and filled it with his own ideas about Huron life. Suddenly Christ is born “within a lodge of broken bark,” and wears “a ragged robe of rabbit skin.” Rather than pour oil on his head, the three kings are “chiefs from far” who bring fox and beaver pelts for him. And most bizarrely, Middleton repeatedly refers to God as “Gitchi Manitou,” which is in fact an Algonquin name for God, not a Huron one.
Perhaps Middleton thought he was making de Brébeuf’s work accessible to the widest possible audience (though again, there was already an English translation). Or maybe he thought he could make some money himself. “Jesous Ahatonhia” was the earliest Christmas carol written in Canada, after all. Middleton had his version published just before Christmas in 1926, where it was described as a “charming little Christmas song...[in which] the devoted missionary has adapted the story of the infant Christ to the minds of the Indian children.”
Where de Brébeuf was telling a story about Jesus to the Huron people, Middleton is really telling a story about the Huron people.
What is clear is that Middleton’s own position vis-à-vis the carol radically altered its intention. Where de Brébeuf was telling a story about Jesus to the Huron people, Middleton is really telling a story about the Huron people. He even changes the point of view of the song to enable this. De Brébeuf’s carol directly addresses the Huron listeners: “Have courage, you who are humans,” it begins. “Jesus, He is born.” Middelton’s instead adopts a third person point of view. Rather than addressing the audience, he simply describes the scene.
Though it presents Huron people in a caricatured way and is not at all consistent with de Brébeuf’s intent or text, Middleton’s version—which sometimes goes by its cringeworthy “This is how white people think Native people speak” opening, “Twas in the Moon of Winter-Time”—has been the standard ever since. In more recent times, some choirs have returned to the original text, but today our major Catholic liturgical publishers still sell arrangements of the Middleton text, and Canadian pop stars continue to record their own.
Like de Brébeuf and Middleton, we also view the world from a specific position, with specific assumptions and beliefs, and it unavoidably colors how we see things.