Carol of the Bells – yup, it’s Ukrainian!

That popular ‘Carol of the Bells’ song you hear at Christmas? Yup, it’s Ukrainian!

The melody was created in 1916 by Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych (1877-1921) and titled “Shchedryk” (lyrics). Based on an old Ukrainian folk song, the original lyrics describes the swallow flying into a household to proclaim the plentiful year that the family will have. The song’s title is derived from the Ukrainian word “shchedryi” which means “bountiful.”

The original song in Ukrainian: Choir Irkutsk University – Shchedryk

[Dr. Oleg Bulashenko]

The song was originally written for the New Years, not Christmas:

the original folk melody that Leontovich used to compose his work was one of many well-wishing tunes sung in many Ukrainian villages on Jan. 13 — New Year’s Eve on the Julian calendar — usually by adolescent girls going house to house in celebration of the new year. As the girls sang the tune predicting good fortune, they were rewarded with baked goods or other treats.

It was also written at a time of brief Ukrainian independence after World War I to promote its nationality and culture:

“Very few people realize that the composition ‘Shchedryk’ was composed and performed during a time when there was intense political struggle and social upheaval in Ukraine,” Potoczniak said. The same choir director who commissioned the song formed the Ukrainian National Chorus, mandated by a fledgling Ukrainian government, in 1919 to promote Ukranian music in major cultural centers in the West. Touring across Europe and North and South America, the chorus performed more than 1,000 concerts.

The Ukrainian National Chorus did not limit its performances of “Shchedryk” to the Julian New Year, and the song became popular in other parts of the world as the choir introduced it to other nationalities, including the United States, where they first performed the song to a sold-out audience at Carnegie Hall Oct. 5, 1921.

After being introduced in the US in the 1930’s the song was later ‘adapted’ (and profited) by western audiences as ‘Carol of the Bells (lyrics)‘ and again in the 40’s as ‘Ring, Christmas Bells‘ with its lyrics changed to include the Nativity scene:

When American choir director and arranger Peter Wilhousky heard Leontovich’s choral work, it reminded him of bells; so he wrote new lyrics to convey that imagery for his choir. He copyrighted the new lyrics in 1936 and published the song, despite the fact that the work had been published almost two decades earlier in Soviet Ukraine. In the late 1930s, several choirs that Wilhousky directed began performing his anglicized arrangement during the Christmas holiday season.

Now called “Carol of the Bells,” the song has become associated with Christmas because of its new lyrics, which include references to silver bells, caroling and the line “merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas.”

[Grad student traces origin of ‘super holiday hit’]

The song has been recently modernized with a popular rock variation from the Trans-Siberian Orchestra:

It’s also parodied in popular culture (if you don’t get it – you probably don’t want to know) :

And it looks like it will continue on:


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