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Friday, 10 November 2017

The Baby in the Bark Lodge, by Ben Jeapes

I hope you’ll excuse a Christmassy post in November … If you work with periodicals then your thoughts are often at least a month ahead, and I’ve just been putting the December issue of the parish newsletter to bed. So for me it’s been December for at least a couple of weeks already.

And I hope I don’t end up telling people what they already know perfectly well.

The December newsletter includes a piece about the Huron Carol (also known as ‘Jesus Ahatonnia’), which isn’t one of the better known ones but which is lovely, and not just for its haunting minor key. It was originally written by Jean de Brébeuf, a Jesuit missionary in Canada in the seventeenth century. He wanted to bring the Christmas message to the native Huron people – people who had never seen a desert, had no idea what a shepherd or a stable is, had never heard of the Emperor Augustus …

So, in its original language, the carol just speaks in very general terms about a message brought by the sky people (angels), and the birth of Jesus. An English version written in the 1920s gets much more Huron-specific. God becomes ‘gitchi Manitou’, the Great Spirit; the angels appear to wandering (and wondering) hunter braves in the forests; the holy child is born in a humble lodge of bark, and wrapped in a ragged robe of rabbit skin. Instead of Magi, chiefs come from afar with gifts of fox and beaver pelt.

You can find the English words here and there are several renditions on YouTube.

By the 1920s, the Huron people might have had a much better idea of the things that appear in traditional Christmas imagery, so didn’t need a Huronised version at all. But I’m glad it was written because it jogs us out of the traditional European Christmas imagery, reminding us that the Christmas story is for all peoples of all nations and all times. This isn’t news to many missionaries, of course, and not just the ones who go abroad. In poverty-stricken areas of our own towns, urban missionaries can adjust the Christmas story to local conditions that people will  recognise from experience. ACW members at the recent writer’s day were privileged to watch an amazing video ('He Came Down') of a church that put on a nativity play cast entirely by children with Down Syndrome. The Christmas message helped a mum with a Down kid come to terms with her child’s condition.

The work of a missionary is to deliver Jesus into other people’s understanding, not drag other people’s understanding into their message. Anywhere there is an image of need and humbleness, that is what Jesus was born into. The rest is icing.


Ben Jeapes took up writing in the mistaken belief that it would be easier than a real job (it isn’t). Hence, as well as being the author of 5 novels and co-author of many more, he has also been a journal editor, book publisher, and technical writer. www.benjeapes.com

1 comment:

  1. Hear hear! That carol is so beautiful, both the words and the haunting melody.

    There's nothing wrong with the European imagery, but it has dominated far too much. The Holy Family were all Jews! And although there was a manger, there's no mention of a stable (weren't animals housed inside many poorer 1st century dwellings?) and there's also no mention of a donkey anywhere in the text. I do love the traditional imagery (it has its place) but we must be careful not to conflate it with what the text actually says. It's icing, as you say - not the real message.

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