Friday, December 25, 2009

Contexualizing the Christmas Story

If you have access to Facebook and wish to add to the discussion I hope to have provoked there, please do.

Merry Christmas and a Blessed Nativity of Our Lord to you all! As I do every year, I’ve spent considerable time humming or singing Christmas carols and hymns. And as I have for many a year passed, I’ve contemplated one particular hymnodic question.

Briefly consider this hymn written in 1643 by the Jesuit priest Jean de Br├ębeuf (#Canadian patron saint, Canadian martyr) for the Huron natives. Called “Huron Carol” or alternatively “’Twas in the moon of wintertime,” the hymn illustrates a question of contextualization that intrigues me.

*‘Twas in the moon of wintertime
When all the birds had fled
That mighty Gitchee Manitou
Sent angel choirs instead.
Before their light the stars grew dim
And wandering 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 bright and fair
As was the ring of glory on
The helpless Infant there
And chiefs from far before him knelt
With gifts of fox and beaver pelt.
Jesus your King is born, Jesus in born.
In excelsis gloria.

O children of the forest green
O sons of Manitou
This holy Child of earth and Heav’n
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 would ask, “Is this hymn appropriate for Christian use?” If so, in what settings is it appropriate: liturgy, private use, caroling? Why or why not?

On the one hand, the song is beautiful (at least, the Jesse Edgar Middleton translation I am working from) and confesses the birth of Jesus Christ. However, I am curious about two aspects of lyrics.

First, how appropriate is the use of the name “Gitchee Manitou” for God? Is the use of this Huron name similar to the anglo use of “God” for YHWH, or is there significant reason to avoid using this name to refer to the Divine (ie; syncretism with indigenous paganism)?

"Gitche Manitou (Gitchi Manitou, Gitche Manito, etc.) means "Great Spirit" in several Algonquian languages. The term was also utilized to signify God by Christian missionaries, when translating scriptures and prayers, etc. into the Algonquian languages.
"Manitou is a common Algonquian term for spirit, mystery, or deity."]

Second, how appropriate is the re-description of the characters in the Christmas story to fit the Huron context? For instance; “wandering hunters” for shepherds, “chiefs from far” for magi, "fox and beaver pelt" for gold, frankinscense and myrrh, and “ragged robe of rabbit skin” for swaddling bands. Are there substantial objections, theologically or otherwise, to such modifications? Objections considered, are the alterations of detail acceptable for hymnodic use?

I do realize that these may be questions lacking conclusive answers, but what do you all think?


1 comment:

Sherry Van Hesteren said...

I just returned from a Christmas Eve "lessons and carols" service, and was troubled by this song as well. Swapping the song's original details with generalized First Nations images suggests that: a. they had no religion of their own, or not one worth continuing; b. their religion is easily assimilated into Christianity. Both are highly problematic for me. Thanks for your post. It's the only one I've found in many searches that expresses concern.