A culturally competent Christmas carol

By Bishop Peggy Johnson

Of all the Christmas carols and hymns in the UM Hymnal none is as important for us today as #244, “’Twas in the Moon of Wintertime.”  It is a Huron Christmas carol originally written in the language of indigenous Canadian people in 1643 by a French Jesuit priest whose name was Jean de Brebeuf (1583-1649).

About 100 years after these words were written another priest, Father de Villeneuve, copied the words; and a native notary, Paul Picard, translated the poem into French. Still later, it was translated into English (1923) by Jesse Edgar Middelton, a Canadian newspaper reporter. The tune is a French Canadian melody known as “Une Jeune Pucelle.”  

The lyrics take the Christmas story and use symbols of the Huron culture in place of biblical words.  For example, “swaddling clothes” becomes “rabbit skin.” The wise men are “chiefs from far” who brought gifts of fox and beaver pelt.  

God is known as “Gitchi Manitou.” Images of the moon, snow, light, stars and wintertime paint the picture of Christmas as northern peoples would imagine it in their climate and landscape.  

A culturally competent priest

The writer of this hymn was a culturally competent priest who literally gave his life to share the gospel with the Huron/Wendat people.  Father Jean de Brebeuf showed a gift for languages as he studied for the priesthood. He naturally understood that to communicate with people from another culture he had to learn their language, customs and religious practices.  

So great was his rapport with the Huron people that they gave him the name “Echon,” and he was considered as one of them.  He wrote volumes about their language and culture in order to train the next generation of priests that would follow him in this work.  Because he took the time to understand the Huron people he was successful in teaching them about Jesus and raising up Christian believers.  

This is still how we do ministry today.  The world is very diverse and becoming more so with each passing year. The church needs to learn with humility and respect the culture and languages of people who are different from us for us to make disciples of all nations.  

Understanding ourselves better through diversity

We also learn and grow in our understanding of ourselves as we intentionally seek out diversity.  This is not easy, but it is clearly the vision of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit gave birth to a church of much cultural and linguistic variety.

Father Jean de Brebeuf also knew another thing about ministry: that one needs to be willing to sacrifice.  His first winter in Canada he spent the whole time in a freezing cold wigwam. He had to leave the area during the French and English wars but tenaciously came back to continue his ministry under threat of war.  

Many of the native peoples contracted European diseases, and he ministered to them during mass epidemics of illness and death.  The Jesuits went out on their missions expecting to die for the cause of Christ. And indeed, that was his sad fate. In 1649 he was kidnapped by the Iroquois (who were at war with the Huron people), and he was tortured and martyred.   Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

A cross to take up in our ministry

We would all prefer not to suffer.  But there is a cross in our ministry and a call for us to take up that cross every day.  There is a cross in evangelism and mission work.

In our Christmas story, when the baby Jesus was born, Mary laid him in a manger, a wooden feeding trough for animals. The cross of Calvary, where he would later die, was also made of wood.  

The message of Christmas is that God sent his son to the world out of God’s love for all people, all cultures and languages. He sent this son and savior so that through his death on the cross all might have access to forgiveness and to life abundant and everlasting.  There is pain in the offering, but great is the reward.

I hope you will sing this Christmas carol. But more important than that, I hope you will find ways to celebrate Christmastide this year with people from other cultures and languages. There is so much more we can be doing to spread this great good news to all people.

“Twas in the moon of wintertime, when all the birds had fled,
That mighty Gitchi Manitou sent angel choirs instead.
Before their light the stars grew dim, and wondering hunters heard the hymn,
Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born, in excelsis Gloria

O children of the forest free, O seed 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.

Sources:
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer The Cost of Discipleship
  • “History of Hymns” “’Twas in the Moon of Wintertime” Discipleship Ministries   C. Michael Hawn
  • “Huron Carol” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huron_Carol
  • United Methodist Book of Hymns #244

Republished from The Bishop’s Blog.