Jesous Ahatonhia: the Wendat Christmas carol of Fr. Brébeuf
December 20, 2018 — For years, various anglophone and francophone artists in Canada have brought attention to the carol Jesous Ahatonhia. This ode to the birth of Jesus, the first Christmas carol in the history of the country, would have been composed in 1641-42 by Fr. Jean de Brébeuf, during his time in Huronia.
We write this in the conditional tense because in fact music historians do not agree on the origins of the carol. For some, Jesous Ahatonhia would indeed have been written by Fr. Brébeuf while on mission in the Georgian Bay area. For others, however, the origins of this carol are lost in the oral tradition of the Wendat-Huron converts to Christianity. Jesous Ahatonhia was “rediscovered” in 1794 by the Jesuit Étienne-Thomas de Villeneuve, who at that time was a missionary in the Wendat community of Jeune-Lorette (Wendake). Later the carol was translated from Wendat to French by a Huron elder, Paul Tsawenhohi (aka Picard).
So let’s not deny ourselves the pleasure of enjoying the carol of Fr. Brébeuf as sung by Bruce Cockburn:
In any case, it is very likely that Fr. Brébeuf was the author of this carol! Eager to inculturate Christianity into the habits and customs of the Wendat people, Fr. Brébeuf is notably the author of a catechism in the Huron language. Incidentally, his companions Paul Le Jeune and Antoine Daniel noted the central place occupied by singing in indigenous spirituality, so much so that they had the Wendat neophytes and catechumens sing the catechism as well as the Our Father. “It is a pleasure to hear them sing in the woods what they have learned (of the catechism). Even the women sing it, and sometimes come to listen at the window of my classroom,” writes Fr. Paul Le Jeune in the Relations of 1633.
Clearly the carol takes on an entirely new significance in the wake of the Canadian Canoe Pilgrimage and the commitment of the Jesuits of Canada to reconciliation with First Nations.
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FX Johnson died on 3 May at René Goupil House, Pickering. He was 93 years old and in his 68th year as a Jesuit. In 1969, he began his long career as a parish priest, hospital chaplain, and pastoral worker and spent a lot of his Jesuit life on the move from one pastoral assignment to another.
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