by Craig Dimitri

The “Carol of the Bells” is that extraordinarily resonant, catchy carol that we’ll all stop at, once we hear the chords while scanning the radio, whether terrestrial or satellite.  After a few notes of the chiming bells and the chant of:

ring, Christmas bells, merrily ring,”

one can immediately picture the medieval English singing it, at a stained-glass-windowed cathedral, at some point in the 13th century, in a town called “Westburyfordshire” (or thereabouts) at midnight on Christmas Eve.

And everything about that picture (which, until I did the research for this article, I had long envisioned in my mind) would be completely wrong.  The reality is shockingly different from the image.  The “Carol of the Bells” is

a) not English, or British, or even Western European!

b) not originally written for Christmas!

c) not formally composed, until the 20th century! (It was composed at the time of the First World War, in 1916).

So if it’s not English, or Christmas-related, or centuries-old – then what is the source of the “Carol of the Bells”?

The song is from Ukraine, not England, but in fairness, all of the elements of the English-church, Christmas-card picture do have elements rooted in fact.  Although “Carol of the Bells” was not formally composed until 1916, it is based on an ancient Ukrainian folk melody, and so it very well might have existed in the Middle Ages (and for that matter, might even pre-exist Christianity itself).  

In addition, that Ukrainian song was about New Year’s Day, not Christmas.  To contemporary Westerners, that’s more of difference of degree than kind, given that we lump the two of them together.  But according to the Rice University anthropology student who unearthed this information, he’s been told by contemporary Ukrainians that Christmas is “too soon” to sing the song…

And after English lyrics were added, later in the 20th century, it’s become very popular in the English-speaking world at Christmas-tide.

Let’s explore its origins:

The original Ukrainian folk song focused on the arrival of a swallow on January 13 (New Year’s Day, under the Julian calendar used in Ukraine, as opposed to the Gregorian calendar used in the West).  The swallow would arrive at the the Ukrainian home, and inform the master of the good fortune and prosperity he’d be receiving for the year.  Awkwardly transliterated into the Western, Roman alphabet, it is called “Shchedryk” (derived from the Ukrainian term for “bountiful”).  Girls and young women would go from house to house in Ukraine and sing the swallow’s song, and be rewarded with sweets and treats, in a sort of Halloween-meets-New-Year’s-Day melange.

Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovich formally composed music based on “Shchedryk”, and it was first sung by students at Kiev University, in what is now the capital of Ukraine, during Christmas-tide 1916, in the depths of the First World War.  After the war ended, the Ukrainian government sent the Ukrainian National Chorus out on the road to talk up Ukraine and its culture.  It performed all over the world, including a sold-out Carnegie Hall in New York City, on October 5, 1921.

The American composer Peter Wilhousky believed that the resounding melody evoked bells (although there are no bells at all in the Ukrainian lyrics), and so he wrote English lyrics based on a bell theme, copyrighting the lyrics in 1936.   There are actually multiple English-language lyrics by different authors.  In the late 1930s, Wilhousky-run choirs began performing it in English at Christmas-tide; in the 1940s, recordings of the English-language version began to peal in the U.S.  And it’s been popular ever since; according to the Rice student Anthony Potoczniak, no fewer than 35 English-language versions have now been recorded.

Questions?  Comments?  Information?  You can contact Craig Dimitri at cdimitri1@yahoo.com. 

Article on Rice University anthropology student studying the Ukrainian roots of “Carol of the Bells”  –

http://www.scienceblog.com/community/older/2004/7/20046906.shtml

Synopsis of the history of “Carol of the Bells” –

http://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Hymns_and_Carols/Notes_On_Carols/carol_of_the_bells_notes.htm

 

 

 

 

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