Every Christmas I seethe as a litany of bad music washes over me. Some is saccharine sweet romantic twaddle. More is offensive to my religiously atheistic and culturally Jewish sensibility. The odd song is just about bearable. The Huron Carol, however, has earned a special place in my loathing. Perhaps it is the constant revelations about the heinous crimes committed in the residential schools run by the descendents of the Catholic priest who wrote, and whose collaborators disseminated, the song. Perhaps it is the news about lack of water, schools and just about everything else on the reservations. The long and the short of it is that I hate the song and everything it stands for. I hate it all the more because it has taken in some pretty good folks- Tom Jackson and Bruce Cockburn, among others. They should know better and that just makes me madder.
What, you ask, is wrong with the song? Everything! First, it is not a Huron Carol. It is a jingle written in the mid-17th century in Huron by Jean de Brebeuf, a Jesuit priest, for consumption by Hurons who the Catholic Church was trying to convert. He took a French traditional song- Une Jeune Pucelle (A Young Maiden) and wrote a text to it. In the original, the victory of the new gods over the previous is explicit. The first verse tells its listeners that:
The spirit who had us as prisoners has fled.
Do not listen to it, as it corrupts the spirits of our minds.
Jesus, he is born.
It is providential that you love us and wish, ‘I should adopt them’
This took place in the context of the near total destruction of the Huron people by disease spread by the arrival of the Europeans. The song was a message from the new power that if there was any chance of salvation from terror, it was through abandoning Huron traditions and “adopting them”. If those words are not familiar to you, it is because they are from the original verses. The English translation- actually a massive rewriting- was done in 1926 by Jesse Edgar Middleton who turned it into a 19th century caricature of the Christmas story drained of any poetic power. Middleton, a neo-Victorian poet from Guelph, Ontario, also, in the spirit of Protestant entrepreneurship, copyrighted the song. It was under copyright until 2011.
Middleton did well off the song but Brebeuf was tortured to death by Iroquois who also destroyed most of the Huron society that disease had left. What remained of the Hurons ended up in the American Midwest and the village of Lorette near Quebec City. From there, through hymnals, the song made its way into the modern repertoire. Edith Fowke anthologized it in Folk Songs of Canada, published in the mid-fifties, and Burl Ives made what is likely the first recording on a 1952 Christmas record. It has become extremely popular and, somehow, a shining example of Canadian creation when it is really a sad tale of fraud, domination and loss.