Carol of the Bells – The Christmas Song Born In Ukraine

Carol of the Bells is a favorite Christmas song for millions. Interestingly enough, this haunting, fun Christmas tune owes its origin to a Ukrainian winter well-wishing song whose lyrics had nothing to do with Christmas, or even bells for that matter. 

The original song, titled Shchedryk was written in 1916 by Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovich. The title is a derivative of the Ukrainian word shchedryj (say that three times fast) meaning bountiful. It tells the story of a swallow flying into a home declaring to its inhabitants that spring is coming soon and that they will have a plentiful new year. Leontovich had been commissioned by choir director Oleksander Koshyts to write a song for a Christmas concert based on Ukrainian folk melodies. He found the famous four note melody and the original lyrics in an anthology of Ukrainian folk melodies and adapted it for choir.

Shchedryk, in its new form, was first performed during a time of intense political struggle in Ukraine. To help their national situation, the Ukrainian government tasked Oleksander Koshyts (who had commissioned Shchedryk from Leontovich) with leading a Ukrainian choir tour across Europe, North America, and South America to promote Ukrainian music. Before their tour was complete, Koshyts choir had performed over 1,000 concerts. This precursor to Carol of the Bells became globally popular as the choir continued to introduce it around the world. It was first performed in the United States to a sold-out Carnegie Hall audience on October 5, 1921.

It wasn’t long before Peter Wilhousky, an American choir director, heard Shchedryk. The repetition of the tune reminded him of bells, so he wrote a new version of the song with new lyrics for his choir. Even though the song had been published in Soviet Ukraine twenty years earlier, Wilhousky published Carol of the Bells in 1936. It wasn’t long before the new version of the song was being performed regularly during the Christmas season across the United States.

Merry, merry, merry Christmas.

Click here to listen to Carol of the Bells as performed by St. George’s Chapel Choir at Windsor

*Photo courtesy of Phil Hearing

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s