St. Jean de Brebeuf

Brebéuf’s carol a long way from today’s version

  • December 18, 2018

“The Huron Carol” you may have so enjoyed singing and listening to all these Christmases — well, it’s not the true words of St. Jean de Brébeuf’s you have been led to believe.

It’s the work of Jesse Edgar Middleton, a Canadian choir master, poet, journalist and music critic who penned the words to the popular Canadian Christmas carol in 1926 for an English audience.

“He told a Christmas story that he thought was a native style,” said John Steckley, the Toronto scholar who specializes in Native American studies, in particular the Indigenous languages of the Americas. “It doesn’t relate to what Brébeuf wrote at all.” 

Steckley is reportedly the last known speaker of the Wyandot language, the language of the Wendat (or Huron) people who populated the area around Midland, Ont., where Brébeuf and his brother Jesuits ministered. Brébeuf’s ministry would eventually lead to his death as he and the seven other Canadian martyrs were slain at the hands of the Iroquois during warfare between the two nations.

Steckley has translated the original words of Brébeuf to come up with a more authentic version of “The Huron Carol,” which Brébeuf is said to have composed around 1642 under the title “Jesus Ahatonnia” (“Jesus, He is Born.”) 

It has since become somewhat of a cottage industry for him, as around November each year Steckley fields calls from choirs and musicians seeking aid to play or record the original verses to the song. Among the artists who have recorded the translated version is Bruce Cockburn, who recorded it for his 1993 Christmas album.

In the 1970s Steckley was learning the language of the Wendat and was intrigued by “The Huron Carol” that he had known and sung since he was a boy. Further investigation into the language and the carol gave him “an exciting idea”: he wanted to do a true translation.

Though he found Middleton’s version of “The Huron Carol” doesn’t quite match Brébeuf’s — Middleton references Gitchi Manitou, an Ojibwe word for God, where the Wendat had no such word except for the occasional use of “Jesus Ahatonnia” — Steckley sees the intent is there. 

Steckley takes no offence to Middleton taking the listener down a different path and likens it to “two different reporters from two different papers on the same story.” Their versions differ but conclude with Jesus is born. And at least Middleton’s wasn’t butchered the way a very bad French translation from the late-18th century by Fr. Etienne Thomas de Villeneuve Girault, said Steckley.

“You realize probably around (Middleton’s) time it’s when the last speakers (of the language) were just about to die. So no one could criticize it. The intention, I think, was good.”

Brébeuf, though, is the man who deserves the most credit for the carol and for so much more, said Steckley.

“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,” said the retired scholar from Toronto’s Humber College who continues to delve into his passion for Indigenous languages. “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.”

His work in the language has brought Steckley a deep appreciation of Brébeuf, even a connection to the saint. His first academic article was on Brébeuf’s catechism in 1978, and he has only discovered more about him in the ensuing years. He recalls his own work at Ste. Marie Among the Hurons in Midland where he was a historical interpreter and there were times he would go to the chapel where Brébeuf had been buried and would sense that connection.

“He’s always been my favourite because he was the first European to crack the language.”

THEN AND NOW: Interpretations of a classic carol


Jesus Ahatonnia 

(Jesus, He is Born) 


The Huron Carol (‘Twas in the Moon of Winter Time)

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.’

‘Twas in the moon of wintertime when all the birds had fled

That mighty Gitchi Manitou sent angel choirs instead;

Before their light the stars grew dim and wondering hunters heard the hymn, 

Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born, in excelsis gloria. 

Within a lodge of broken bark the tender babe was found;

A ragged robe of rabbit skin enwrapped His beauty round

But as the hunter braves drew nigh the angel song rang loud and high 

Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born, in excelsis gloria. 

The earliest moon of wintertime is not so round and fair

As was the ring of glory on the helpless infant there.

The chiefs from far before Him knelt with gifts of fox and beaver pelt.

Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born, in excelsis gloria. 

O children of the forest free, O seed of Manitou

The holy Child of Earth and Heaven is born today for you.

Come kneel before the radiant boy who brings you beauty peace and joy. 

Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born, in excelsis gloria. 

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