York Neighbors: 'Huron Indian Carol' written around 1641

By Juliana L’Heureux

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My Quebec pen pal sent another treasure to add to my growing Franco-American heritage collection. It`s a printed copy of the history and music to ``A Huron Indian Carol,`` (Noël Huron) first written in French around the year 1641, by the Saint Father Jean de Brébeuf (1593-1649). Brébeuf was a French Jesuit missionary martyr who came to New France to evangelize the people but was later murdered.

Rita Drouin is a terrific pen pal who writes about her daily life in Temiscaming, Quebec, on Kipawa Lake. She shares both French-Canadian and native or ``First Nations`` heritage. Writing bilingually, in fluent French and English, her e-mail messages read like mini-storybooks loaded with cultural stories about daily happenings in Kipawa.

When Drouin sends international mail, her perfectly beautiful cursive handwriting is evidence of the practice she learned from dedicated nuns during her French Catholic school education.

Drouin recently wrote about how she`s working in the local Kipawa cemetery to fix the markers ``with new name plates and crosses for the native people of Kipawa, who are my ancestors,`` she writes.

Her husband and son recently returned from their annual moose hunt. ``Our moose is down and today is butchering day. Is there any way that I can send you a steak,`` she asks? ``Trust me,`` she adds, ``it`s the safest meat you can ever eat. Moose are raised in a pristine environment and the animals are vegetarians, to boot,`` she adds.

In passing, Drouin happened to mention finding a copy of ``A Huron Indian Carol`` in her stack of books. Indeed, this particular find captured my attention a lot faster than the thought of eating a moose steak. It`s apparently an acquired taste I haven`t yet mastered.

Sure enough, a package from Canada containing a copy of the Huron book arrived about 10 days later.

The ``Huron Indian Carol`` was translated from the Huron language into simple French by Brébeuf`s Jesuit colleague, Father de Villeneuve. Later, a Quebec notary named Paul Picard translated it into French a second time. Robert E. Oliver translated the carol`s words into English in the booklet Drouin sent, which is dated 1967.

Included in the pamphlet are a series of brilliant color images depicting an American Indian Christmas. The illustrations are by Stanley F. Turner, who first drew the images in 1927 to accompany an earlier publication of the carol`s history.

Brébeuf is tragically remembered for the brutal nature of his horrible death by torture and fire. Nevertheless, he enjoyed measured success in Quebec, where the Hurons called him ``Echon,`` probably their version of his name, ``Jean.`` He wrote ``The Huron Carol`` while recovering from a broken clavicle. Surviving are some of his letters, filled with wit and common sense. ``Remember, they (the Indians) are your brothers,`` he wrote.

He was killed in Quebec during a series of conflicts between the Iroquois and the Hurons.

Finding the lovely hymn he wrote for his friends, the Hurons, leaves us a gentler memory about the fervently religious ``Black Robe`` French Jesuit and saint. In the Huron language, the carol is called ``Jesous Ahatonhia`` (Jesus Is Born). It is the first Canadian Christmas carol. Copies of the hymns` words in several translations, including Huron, are available online and the English words with the music score can be seen here.

Merci beaucoup encore, mon amie, Rita Drouin!

Published on October 25, 2007, Portland Press Herald, Neighbors Edition

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Copyright © 2007, Portland Press Herald, Portland, Maine and Juliana L'Heureux