Missionaries to New France had to adapt Christianity so their converts could understand it. Amerindian languages were simple languages that did not provide “black robes” with ways of expressing abstract notions. To befriend Amerindians they therefore chose to sing with their congregation.
The best-known piece composed for Amerindians is the Huron carol entitled: “Jesous Ahatonhia.” It was composed in 1643 for the Hurons at Ste Marie, in all likelihood, by Jean de Brébeuf, a Jesuit missionary, who was tortured to death by Iroquois Amerindians and has become a mythic figure. The Huron Noël belongs to Canada‘s répertoire of Christmas carols. The melody was borrowed from a French song entitled: Une jeune pucelle (A Young Maid).
Jesous was translated into French by Paul Picard, an Amerindian notary at Quebec City and, into English, by Jesse Edgar Middleton. It was then adapted for voice and piano by Healey Willan (ca 1927), an Anglo-Canadian organist and composer (12 October 1880 in Balham, London – 16 February 1968 in Toronto, Ontario).lyrics Ehstehn yayau deh tsaun we yisus ahattonnia/ O na wateh wado:kwi nonnwa ‘ndasqua entai / ehnau sherskwa trivota nonnwa ‘ndi yaun rashata / Iesus Ahattonnia, Ahattonnia, Iesus Ahattonnia / Asheh kaunnta horraskwa deh ha tirri gwames / Tishyaun ayau ha’ndeh ta aun hwa ashya a ha trreh / aundata:kwa Tishyaun yayaun yaun n-dehta / Iesus Ahattonnia, Ahattonnia, Iesus Ahattonnia / French lyrics Chrétiens, prenez courage, / Jésus Sauveur est né! / Du malin les ouvrages / À jamais sont ruinés. / Quand il chante merveille, / À ces troublants appas / Ne prêtez plus l’oreille: / Jésus est né: In excelsis gloria! Oyez cette nouvelle, /Dont un ange est porteur! /Oyez! âmes fidèles, / Et dilatez vos cœurs. / La Vierge dans l’étable / Entoure de ses bras / L’Enfant-Dieu adorable. / Jésus est né: In excelsis gloria! ‘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. Within a lodge of broken bark the tender babe was found;
A ragged robe of rabbit skin enwrapped 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. The earliest moon of wintertime is not so round and fair
As was the ring of glory on the helpless infant there.
The chiefs from far before him knelt with gifts of fox and beaver pelt.
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.
- The Jesuit Relations: an Invaluable Legacy (15 March 2012)
- More on the Jesuit Relations (16 March 2012)
- Missionaries and the Noble Savage: Père Marquette and Gabriel Sagard (17 November 2012)
- Timothy J. McGee, The Music of Canada (New York, London: W.W. Norton, 1985), p. 12.
- ‘Jesous Ahatonhia,’ The Canadian Encyclopedia