News & Classical Music from Northern Michigan
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Outdoors: The 'Huron Carol'

Decorated Christmas tree

Like all good storytellers and lyrists, Jean de Brébeuf knew his audience.

He was Jesuit missionary to the First People of Canada.

During or around 1642, he wanted to tell the story of the Nativity to the his congregation by setting it to the tune of a French folk song.

The good Father understood that a story with a manger and shepherds and kings would not resonate with the people.

So he wrote “Twas in the Moon of Winter Time," also known as the “Huron Carol."

This week, in many parts of the world, Epiphany will be celebrated on Jan. 6.

It commemorates the arrival of the Magi.

The word “Magi,” according to some sources, (it’s pretty mirky) is derived from a Greek word for “learned astrologer”

This makes sense to me; they were following a star.

But somehow in Europe, the wise men morphed into three kings bringing valuable gifts to the child.

The "Huron Carol," which has undergone several different English translations (some of which have racist overtones), explains “the chiefs from far before him knelt, with gifts of fox and beaver pelt."

To indigenous hunters and trappers and to Europeans at that time, fox and beaver pelts indeed would have been valuable.

Beavers' pelts have a layer of soft, dense fur known as underwool, and in Europe during the 1600s, this fur was “felted” to make beaver hats, which were extremely fashionable.

High quality pelts came from Canada and the Great Lakes regions where winters were harsh, so animals had high quality pelts of insulating fur.

Beautiful furs of other mammals - ermine, mink, and fox - were used for luxury clothing.

French and later English fur trading companies exchanged European goods for prime fur pelts, which were essentially currency at the time.

All of this led to exploration, wars, colonization and disconcerting exploitation of First Nations People.

But for the First People of Canada, the carol told the story of important visitors from far away who brought valuable gifts to a tender babe wrapped, not in swaddling clothes, but a robe of ragged rabbit skin.

“In excelsis, gloria!”

"Outdoors with Coggin Heeringa" can be heard every Wednesday on Classical IPR.