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The Story Behind the Song "Carol of the Bells" Originated from Ukraine

Carol of the Bells: The Christmas Carol Born in Ukraine

Silver bells

"Carol of the Bells," popular among Christmas revelers in the U.S.A., has its roots in old Ukrainian folk songs. Building on this, Ukrainian composer and music teacher, Mykola Dmytrovych Leontovych, wrote Shchedryk in 1916. The English lyrics were written by American composer, Peter J. Wilhousky, thus truly making it a Christmas song of the Western world. The lyrics are copyrighted today, but the original Ukrainian piece is not. 

Composer Mykola Leontovych

The song is a characteristic of an ostinato (repetitive music phrases) of four notes, and has, since its creation, been adapted for diverse musical genres, such as metal, jazz, pop, and rock, and performed by various artists. Additionally, the song has been used in feature films and television shows.  

The spellbinding melody was originally a folk song intended to be a winter melody of good wishes. Leontovych named it Shchedryk in his initial Ukrainian form. The tale is of a swallow flying into a home, to predict a wonderful year ahead for the family staying there. The promises include healthy livestock and a beautiful wife. 

The name of the song is derived from the Ukrainian word ‘shchedryj’ which means bountiful. The history of the song begins when Oleksander Koshyts, a respectable choir director, commissioned the composer to create a song based on existing Ukrainian folk tunes. This prompted the finding of a piece in an anthology of melodies, which would go on to be a precursor of the Carol of the Bells, as we know it today. 

Despite all this and the song’s fame as a Christmas tune, it was initially meant as a New Year’s celebration. The first performance took place on January 13, 1916. Even though this is well past the Gregorian New Year’s Day, it is so because, at that time, orthodoxy in churches resulted in the use of the Julian Calendar. Koshyts, who commissioned Leontovych, then came to create the Ukrainian National Chorus. This was a mandate by the government, stipulated in 1919 for the promotion of Ukrainian music around the world. The chorus performed over a thousand concerts across Europe, North and South America.   

Shchedryk’s U.S. debut was in 1921 by the same Ukrainian National Chorus at Carnegie Hall. Peter J. Wilhousky, a very popular American composer of the time with Ukrainian ethnicities, wrote the English lyrics for the song in 1936. They did not limit their shows to any particular region and the widespread performances quickly gained recognition and appreciation. 

This led to its renaming for Western audiences, particularly the United States, into Carol of the Bells. It became quickly associated with Christmas, particularly due to its lyrics, which included “silver bells” references. Consequently, a number of well-established groups and individuals recorded the song in English all through the 1940s. Fred Warring and the Roger Wagner Chorale are notable among them. 

Although gaining near unmatched fame in the U.S., the song remains under-appreciated in its country of origin for Christmas, where performance is mainly restricted to the Julian Calendar's New Year’s eve. 


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