Wednesday, December 11, 2013

December 12

Christmas in Old Quebec City, Canada

'Twas in the Moon of Wintertime
arranged by John Rutter
and performed by The Cambridge Singers  

'Twas in the moon of winter-time
When all the birds had fled,
That mighty Gitchi Manitou
Sent angel choirs instead;
Before their light the stars grew dim,
And wandering hunter 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
Enwrapp'd 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."

 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.
"Jesus your King is born,
Jesus is born,
In excelsis gloria."

I have written extensively about this carol in previous years.  It is one of my favourites, and not just because it is said to be the very first Christmas carol written and sung on Canadian soil;  in or around the date 1642.

I love it mainly because it is a example of respect between two cultures working together to establish a "common ground" and understanding.

Father Jean de Brébeuf was a Jesuit missionary who was sent from France to the New World. From what we now know as "Old" Quebec City, he traveled West, and eventually settled near where I live, in a place called "Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons", in what is now Midland, Ontario. Father Brébeuf was a truly great man, and he loved and admired the people he was sent to serve. Like any good teacher, he understood that he had as much (if not more) to learn from the Huron people as they did from him.

 A prime example of this was in his understanding of the necessity to preserve and record the Wendat language. As a scholar, he excelled in the study and acquisition of languages, and he demonstrated a significant ability to represent sounds in writing. He is also said to have mastered the native oratory style, which used metaphor, circumlocution and repetition, in order to tell a story. He was the first to record the existence of compound words in the Wendat language, and this enormous breakthrough in the study of Native language became the foundation for all further Jesuit linguistic work.

 Father Brébeuf wrote what is now referred to as "The Huron Carol" in the Wendat language. The song's original title is "Jesous Ahatonhia", which means "Jesus is Born". The melody is based upon a traditional French folk song, "Un Jeune Pucelle". In 1926, Jesse Edgar Middleton translated the carol into English. The story of the Nativity is told in such a way that it "blends" the two very different cultures: Jesus is born in a lodge of broken bark, rather than a stable, and wrapped in rabbit skin, rather than swaddling clothes. He is surrounded by hunters, rather than shepherds, and the name used to refer to the Creator, Gitchi Manitou, originates from the Algonquian dialect. Brébeuf seemed to understand that the Native people would never simply abandon all of their traditional beliefs, and made a great effort to make his Christian teachings more acceptable for the Huron.

The Martyr's Shrine
Midland, Ontario
In 1649, Father Jean de Brébeuf, along with several other Jesuit priests and many native converts, was captured by the enemy of the Huron tribe, the Iroquois. The priests were taken to the occupied village of Taenhatenteron, where they were subjected to ritual torture. While enduring the unthinkable, it is said that Father Brébeuf was far more concerned for his fellow captives than for himself. Apparently even the Iroquois were amazed by the bravery shown in his stoic, silent suffering. He was finally burned to death on March 17th. Beatified in 1925, he was canonized as a saint in 1930. He is now a patron saint of Canada.

 Last summer, I had the opportunity to travel to Quebec City with my eldest daughter, who was embarking on a five-week French exchange. While there, we toured many churches and cathedrals, including the beautiful Jesuit chapel.
We were welcomed by a charming gentleman who spoke mainly French, "with a little bit of English".  He was delighted by our questions, and happily toured us around the beautiful sanctuary, rich in art work and steeped in history.  One of my favourite parts of our afternoon was when he beckoned us over to a pew stall.  He pointed down towards the floor as he moved the kneeler back and forth.  A deep groove had been worn in the wooden floor beneath the little legs of the kneeler:  an indication of just how many people had worshiped in that very place.  

In my rusty highschool French, I attempted to express how much I have always admired Jean de Brébeuf, especially as he had worked and been martyred so near to where I live. He led me towards the gilded wooden altar-- upon which carvings of sheaves of wheat represent the bounty of the New World-- and gestured to the left. There was Father Brébeuf. His remains do not rest in the chapel, however.  Jean de Brébeuf is buried at the Church of St. Joseph, at what is now the reconstructed site of Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons.  He will always be remembered in the work and beautiful music for which he sacrificed his earthly life. 

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