Graeme Burk wrote to me with some interesting notes, including the text of the Anglicised version of the hymn which Cockburn talks about in comments further down the page.
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 wandering 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
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
O children of the forest free, O sons 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
It is as you can see an incredibly Victorian-esque, sentimentalised affair which borders on being patronising. And it's not a patch on the original which has such intriguing phrases such as "It is the will of the spirits that you love us, Jesus".
"Mighty Gitchi Manitou", which in the Anglicized version of the Huron Carol is the "great spirit", or God. Gitchi Manitou doesn't actually appear in the original, as you can tell, and I don't even think he's Huronian in origin, but he's been transliterated into the "modern" version.
All that said, I have to say I still rather like the Anglicised version. There's a simplicity to the lyrics which are quite haunting, and the willingness of the "translator"-cum-rewriter (Jesse Edgar Middleton in 1926-- which isn't Victorian, after all!) to at the very least stay with the Carol's original intention of transplanting the Christmas story into another culture should be applauded, even if it's all references to beaver pelt, broken bark, and Gitchi Manitou. And it's that willingness to revision the story that makes the song resonate with so many people, even in a Tennysonned form. And the fact is the Anglicised version is still widely used even by First Nations members (Editor's note: i.e. Native North Americans) in Canada themselves. Tom Jackson, one of Canada's leading aboriginal singers/actors, had a Christmas special on the CBC last year and he used "Huron Carol" as the centrepiece for it (and even used it as the title of the special).
There's an alternative translation to "Iesus Ahtonnia" found at http://www.rockies.net/~spirit/charlene/huroncarol1.html. It's more of a literal translation and it lacks the poetry of the version Bruce used, but it's worth a look.
"Otherwise known as 'The Huron Carol', this is the first Canadian Christmas hymn. It was written early in the 1600s by the Jesuit Fr. Jean de Brebeuf, who acquired fame and martyrdom soon after when he was ceremonially barbecued by members of the Iroquois confederacy, who went on to virtually obliterate the Hurons and their culture. They were encouraged in this by British colonial interests who were after control of French claimed territory, much of which was traditionally Huron. Those of this latter tribe who survived the wars were mostly absorbed into Iroquois communities. A few, however, stayed with the French colonies. Their descendants inhabit a couple of villages in modern Quebec, but their language has largely been lost. Special thanks are due to John Steckley for his help as translator and pronunciation coach."
19 December 1993
Liane Hansen: "There is one song on this collection, compilation, it's called The Huron Carol, one I had never heard of before. Tell us about this one."
BC: "Well, it would be more familiar to Canadian folks. [laughs]"
Liane Hansen: "Well, it was, what, the first Canadian Christmas hymn?"]
BC: "It's, that's right, that song was written in the early 1600s by Jean de Brebeuf, who was one of the original Jesuit priests to be sent over here to convert the 'heathens,' quote unquote. And he wrote that song in the Huron language, so subsequently the Huron culture was obliterated by the Iroquois Confederacy, and by historical currents that all native people were forced to confront, and there isn't a surviving Huron culture now that I'm aware of. There are two little villages near Quebec city, in which are people who think of themselves as Hurons, but they will not admit to speaking Huron, probably because even if some of them do they've been told year after year that it's a bad thing to do, that they should be embracing modern culture and so on. But my friends who were searching out the true Huron pronunciation for me were steered by the people in those villages to a guy named John Steckley at the University of Sudbury in Ontario who is a linguist and student of things Huron and actually does speak Huron. So he was kind enough to provide me with a tape of him reading the lyrics in the original Huron so I was able to get out the original pronunciation. I don't know how close I actually got, but closer than I would have without the help anyway, for sure."
"It is a beautiful tune, and it has always struck me as being a beautiful tune. The English lyrics, which are to be found in Canadian hymn books, are atrocious. They're kind of a bad copy of Tennyson, or something, you know, and very demeaning to my way of looking at things, and patronizing. They talk about children of the forest, and the "Mighty Gitchi Manitou" and all that sort of stuff. And which, I mean, that's fine if native people are comfortable doing that, but I'm not comfortable doing that, so I wanted to get the original Huron lyrics."
"John provided me with a translation, and they're actually really good. They talk about the birth of Christ as a liberation from the thrall of evil, and they use the image of the star of Bethlehem but they name a particular star, and I don't know whether it's a star that existed in Huron mythology or whether it's a real star that they're talking about or a physical star that they're, that's named as the star of Bethlehem. They talk about the three wise men coming, but they refer to them as three men of great influence who, when they came to where the baby Jesus was, anointed his scalp with sunflower seed oil many times as a sign of respect, and this sort of thing. It's the story retold in that certain Native American context, but retold without any patronizing or of talking down to the people. It's just put in terms that are sort of cross-cultural."
- from "Revisiting Traditional Carols with Bruce Cockburn" with Liane Hansen, Weekend Edition, National Public Radio, 19 December 1993. Submitted by Nigel Parry.
11 December 1994
"This is a song that was written back in the 1600s, around the same time as the Wexford Carol, as it turns out. Although, it was written on this continent, which may make it one of the oldest songs to be written on this continent, by someone of European descent at least. This was written by one Father Brebeuf - Jean de Brebeuf - who was a Jesuit missionary to the Huron Indians. And I think its pretty safe to say its the first time that the Huron language has been heard on the airwaves in North America, or at least in the U.S. So your going to hear a lot of strange words go by, but what it says in English is this:" (see above).
- from spoken intro to The Huron Carol from the fourth annual 'Christmas With Cockburn' show on the Columbia Radio Hour, New York City, 11 December 1994. Submitted by Jeffrey Dreves (2006).
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This page is part of The Cockburn Project, a unique website that exists to document the work of Canadian singer-songwriter and musician Bruce Cockburn. The Project archives self-commentary by Cockburn on his songs and music, and supplements this core part of the website with news, tour dates, and other current information.