Yesterday someone asked me what my favourite Christmas Carol was. I was stumped for a moment. No one had been talking of Christmas carols or songs, so it came at me out of the blue. The first one to come to mind was “Silent Night” so that’s what I told the youngster. She said hers was “Blue Christmas” and that was that.
I didn’t want to get into a semantic discussion, but I have always divided Christmas music and songs into two categories. For me, Christmas carols are the religious songs, the hymns about the coming of the Christ. Christmas songs are different; they deal with the customs and peripheral matters of our celebration. “O Holy Night,” “Away in a Manger,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” these are carols; “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” “Deck the Halls,” “Oh Christmas Tree,” they are songs for the ways in which we celebrate the Christmas season. (A third category which people throw into the mix are winter songs such as “Frosty the Snowman,” “Jingle Bells,” “Winter Wonderland,” which have nothing to do with Christmas, only the winter season and could as joyfully be sung in February. And perhaps should be sung and played throughout the winter.)
After some time to think about it, I have decided that my favourite Christmas carol is the one known as the Huron Carol, written by Jean de Brebeuf in the 1620s here at the Jesuit Mission to the Huron/Wyandot people in their language. Translations have been made into French and English over the years (as well as into other North American native languages.) There are several things I like about it. It is a true carol, dealing with the birth of Christ. It uses the language and imagery of the people for whom it was written to convey its message, giving it a spontaneity that would otherwise be either missing or artificial. The melody Fr. Brebeuf adapted was simple and plain, needing no choirs or soaring symphonic accompaniment. It has found its way into my being and holds its place there.
Even so, that doesn’t mean that my favourite carol always remains the same. I can remember one year I had the privilege to sing “O Holy Night” as a solo with choir. That became my favourite for many years. The Caribbean “Mary’s Boy Child” also held that place for a time, as did the Dutch anthem “Eere Zij God.”
This season the Huron Carol, “Jesus Ahatonhia,” has claimed that spot.