Richard Summerbell | CD single "star date 25.12: nativities." The Lake Huron Carol b/w You Came a Star from Heaven (Tu Scendi Dalle Stelle)

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CD single "star date 25.12: nativities." The Lake Huron Carol b/w You Came a Star from Heaven (Tu Scendi Dalle Stelle)

by Richard Summerbell

17th century Christmas songs that sound as if they were made to be played by Dire Straits, REM, or the Doors. 21st century Xmas.
Genre: Rock: Modern Rock
Release Date: 

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  Song Share Time Download
1. The Lake Huron Carol (single version)
3:30 $0.99
2. You Came a Star from Heaven (Tu Scendi dalle Stelle)
3:35 $0.99
3. The Lake Huron Carol (album version)
4:16 $0.99
Downloads are available as MP3-320 files.


Album Notes
Stardate 25.12: Nativities.

CD single "The Lake Huron Carol" (2 versions) b/w "You Came a Star from Heaven (Tu Scendi Dalle Stelle)"

Two perfect Christmas songs that had lost their way in English-speaking culture are vigorously revived in acoustic-electric rock style with new lyrics for the 21st century.

Both were written by people who were later canonized as saints in the Roman Catholic church. Though one is from the 17th century and the other from the 18th, they both sound musically like they were meant to be 21st century songs all along.

1. A Carol from the Northlands -- The Lake Huron Carol

In 1643, the missionary Jean de Brébeuf ( was living with the Huron-Wendat people on the shores of Lake Huron in what is now the Huronia region of Ontario, Canada. He took the tune of an old French folk song that seemed compatible with the Wendat musical taste, and wrote some Wendat lyrics about the birth of Jesus (see them in detail with English translation at To bridge the gap between ancient Jewish and contemporary Wendat culture, he used a few 'modern' figures of speech. For example, in his lyrics, national "elders" went to see the recently born Jesus, and when they found him, "Te honannonronkwannion ihontonk o'erisen – They greased his scalp many times (i.e., greeted him with reverence), saying 'Hurray.'"

The Wendat people have faithfully kept this carol ("Jesous ahatonhia," i.e., "Jesus, he is born") alive for over 300 years through all the ensuing holocausts and epidemics. At an unknown point in the 19th century, a French version appeared, "Jésus est né," that was a standard devotional Christmas song with no North American reference points in it. When Jesse Edgar Middleton from Ontario set out to correct this in his English translation of 1926 (titled "The Huron Carol" or "Twas in the moon of wintertime") he went to the opposite extreme, setting the birth of Jesus in a native-style hunting lodge in Huronia with chiefs from distant native nations bringing gifts of valuable fur pelts. The song was completely North Americanized; also, its First Nations content was changed to reference not the Iroquoian Huron-Wendat nation, but rather the Algonquian Ojibway-Cree nations who had prevailed after the 18th century around Lake Huron (and still do). Even the Algonquian word Manitou for the great spirit or God was introduced into the song.

Middleton's version caught the public imagination and the song became extremely popular in Canada. It was even taken into the hymnals of some Canadian church denominations such as the Anglican – still officially filed, though, by its original Wendat name, "Jesous Ahatonhia."

By the end of the 20th century, Middleton's post-Victorian vision of ecstatic native leaders falling on their knees before the baby Jesus was experiencing some cultural trouble. Ironically, this was not so much in the native communities, where the carol continued to be translated after his style into additional languages (you can read Mildred Milliea's excellent Mi'kmaq version at and download it being sung by the Eskasoni Trio.). Instead, the problem was experienced by North Americans of European ancestry, i.e., 'white people,' who were having a long-delayed attack of conscience and even grief about what had happened to native North American nations. Missionaries like Brébeuf were seen by many people as destroyers of culture rather than as bringers of enlightenment, and the fact that they were often followed by war and smallpox was also laid to their discredit. Romantic visions of natives delighting in contact with Eurasian cultural values became completely taboo in the liberal-left.

I loved this song, partly because I found its chord structure to be one of the most thrilling natural rock music progressions ever assembled. It amazed me that such a thing, which sounded like it could have been written by The Doors or REM, had come from the 17th century or earlier. I think it must have been that Wendat musical taste Brébeuf was catering to, filtering this one exceptional, mighty tune out of all those jaunty French folk songs. When I tried to sing the song in Toronto, though, audience members gave me poisonous looks of a kind I had never seen. They wanted to kill me. As far as they were concerned, I was blithely laughing off the native near-genocide and kowtowing to what they felt to be its religious roots.

At the same time, living in Toronto, I was a regular visitor to Huronia, visiting friends in Waubashene, Penetanguishene and Owen Sound, and going on mushroom collecting trips every year to Manitoulin Island, the island of the Ojibway great spirit and home of the Wikwemikong reserve, sovereign Ojibway land that has never been ceded to Canada. The atmosphere of the area blew into me with the wind off the lake, and soaked into my lungs with the soap-perfume odours of the giant Lepista mushrooms of Manitoulin.

Then it became clear that what I needed to do was what de Brébeuf and Middleton had done: bring the song and its nativity scene into the modern world. Modern Huronia is an exceptional place – beautiful, abundantly snowy in the winter, spectacular in the fall when the trees turn colour, glorious and sparkling in the summer. It's "cottage country;" tourism is a mainstay, along with trades like boat sales and repair. For many of the current inhabitants, relating to a Christmas nativity scene in a donkey-feeding trough in Herodian Judaea is no easier than it was for the Huron-Wendats in 1643. Moreover, in our modern world, we have a sense of irony and humour that means that nothing can be done naively any more. Meanwhile the Christian message is that Christ is with us everywhere. So here he is again, back in Huronia in the midst of the modern world – for the third time in history.

The Lake Huron Carol

'Twas in the dark of wintertime when snowbirds all had fled
The mighty world creator sent angel choirs instead
Their light made highway lamps grow dim and lonely road crews heard the hymn
Jesus your saviour is born, Jesus is born, in excelsis gloria!

'Twas in an old motel garage the tender babe was found
A blanket from the Sally Ann had wrapped his beauty round
Three refugees from distant lands lay gifts down from near-frozen hands
Jesus your saviour is born, Jesus is born, in excelsis gloria!

Oh people of the frozen earth in the land of Manitou
The holy child of heaven and earth is born this day for you
Through snow-filled nights this radiant boy can bring you warmth and peace and joy
Jesus your saviour is born, Jesus is born, in excelsis gloria
In Penetanguishene gloria; in Alpena, Michigan gloria; in Wikwemikong gloria!

Music by Saint Jean de Brébeuf, 1643, based on 16th c. folk song Une Jeune Pucelle; Lyrical adaptation 2004 © Richard Summerbell, based on the 1926 original English adaptation © Jesse Edgar Middleton (1872-1960) of the traditional French translation of Père Brébeuf's original Huron lyrics. Intro, extro and bridge music © Richard Summerbell.

Musicians: Carlos Vamos, electric guitars, bass and production; Richard Summerbell acoustic guitar and vocals including sigit throat singing; Rob Klerkx drums.

Notes: the 'wind whistling around the trees' music in the middle of the song is the Mongolian-style sigit singing. "Snowbirds," besides referring to some actual arctic birds that migrate through (see also refers to well-off Canadians who fly to warm climates for the winter.

2. Italy's favourite Christmas Carol, first modern English version -- You Came a Star from Heaven (Tu Scendi Dalle Stelle)

Alfonso de'Liguori (, was a brilliant and dedicated Neapolitan priest who founded the small Redemptorist missionary order. In 1775, at the age of 79, he was still hard at work despite the effects of a severe bout of rheumatic fever that had left him partially paralysed and able to eat only through a tube. In his later years, he had turned more and more to writing – books of theology, sermons, letters, and hymns. While staying at one of his order's houses in the small city of Deliceto in Foggia province in eastern Italy, he put together a long Christmas song in his native Neapolitan language. This song, "Quanno Nascetti Ninno" ("When the Child was Born," most often known in English in a shortened version as the "Carol of the Bagpipers"), was later revised in Italian by no less a figure than the Pope – Pius IX in this case. His version of the song, "Tu scendi dalle stelle" ("You came down from the stars") became the most popular Italian Christmas carol of all time.

The song has a relatively little known English translation, "From Starry Skies thou Comest." This translation is anachronistically written in the English of the King James Bible; also, it translates rather freely and is occasionally loose on rhyme: "In heav'n Thou wert creator, the true and only word, yet here on earth no fire, Lord, to keep Thee from the cold."

Some friendly Italian-Canadian co-workers asked me to play "Tu scendi dalle stelle" at a Christmas party in the late 1990's. I realized I could sing the Italian lyrics with enthusiasm but that the English would sound stilted. So, with much work, I made a new translation, with help from the same friends on the meanings of difficult words like pargoletto, an archaic diminutive meaning "little child." The translation is very literal except that the opening line of each verse has a little nod to the modern world in it, just to make sure we're all awake. Later, when I went to record the song, I found that it couldn't come into 21st century popular music without an ending, so, again with great labour, one was written that went up to the stars and came back down to the baby's bedside.


You came, a star from heaven, oh lord of sky and earth
A cold and shadowed shed became your place of birth
A cold and shadowed shed became your place of birth
Baby so small yet lord of us all
You tremble as winter winds brush your face
O lord of hope and grace...
How dearly did it cost you to come put yourself in our place
How dearly did it cost you to come put yourself in our place

Creator of the planets and of all that lives could desire
Now wrapped in simple cloth in the night with no warming fire
Now laid upon the straw in the night with no warming fire
O chosen child, the night wind blows wild
and to know you'd come live in such harsh poverty
endears your spirit to me
when you join with the poor in the cold night you show us how warm love can be
when you join with the poor in the cold night you show us how warm love can be

You came, a star from heaven to show us the way
in the night with no warming fire.
Baby so small, here with us all.
You came a star.

Translation © Richard Summerbell from original Italian lyrics Tu Scendi Dalle Stelle by Pope Pius IX (Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti), 1792-1878, based on Quanno Nascette Ninno, music and lyrics 1755 by Saint Alfonso Maria de' Liguori, 1696-1787. Extro music and lyrics © Richard Summerbell.

Musicians: Carlos Vamos, electric guitars, bass and production; Richard Summerbell acoustic guitar and vocals; Rob Klerkx drums.



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