How a Ukrainian song became a Christmas classic

Carol of the Bells was written more than 100 years ago

Carol of the Bells has been translated into many different languages. Photo: David Beale / Unsplash
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Carol of the Bells is one of the most recognisable Christmas songs ever, with its almost eerie and haunting four-note melody. It has many iterations in different languages and has been prominently used in popular culture throughout the years – including in classic holiday movies such as Home Alone.

More than a century ago, however, it had a different theme, which had nothing to do with Christmas.

The song is originally from Ukraine, written by renowned composer Mykola Leontovych in 1914 during the country's pre-Christian era. At the time, people celebrated New Year in the spring, when swallows would return home after a long winter.

The original title, Shchedryk, was derived from the Ukrainian word for bountiful. People would sing the ritualistic tune to bless each other for good harvest and prosperity. The lyrics tell the story of the bird flying into a household to proclaim the bountiful year the family will have.

Music as a tool of diplomacy

Leontovych took a monophonic melody to create a chorale masterpiece, the version that has gone on to become a global phenomenon. After the First World War in 1918, Ukraine declared independence and had to fight for international recognition. Symon Petliura, a journalist and art critic, became its head of state and decided to use music as a way to introduce their culture to the world.

He inspired the creation of Ukrainian Republic Capella, a chorale group that was tasked to go on a European tour with a line-up of local songs depicting the country's identity, one of which was Shchedryk.

The first international stop was Czechoslovakia in May 11, 1919, where the singers performed at the Prague National Theatre. This was where the first foreign audience got to hear the composition, before the choir flew to Austria where they performed 11 concerts and caused a stir in the local press.

The European tour lasted for three years, with the group performing about 100 concerts across 10 countries, including France, Belgium, Spain and Switzerland. Famous composers, conductors and music critics had new appreciation for Ukranian culture, while calls for the country's recognition also gained traction.

Members of royal families, heads of states and other influential members of European society bore witness to the concerts. Queen Elisabeth of Belgium was among the vocal supporters of Ukrainian music and singing after attending a performance.

Although the concerts featured only a handful of songs, Leontovych's Shchedryk was a stand out. At the time, it was being translated into different European languages for foreign choirs to perform.

However, the choir didn't quite achieve the fame it wanted, at least in Europe. In 1921, Ukraine was occupied by Bolshevik Russia, and Leontovych was shot at his parents' house in the same year. Some of the Ukranian singers who were part of the tour flew to the US in 1922, where famous impresario Max Rabinoff helped them get on to the American stage.

From Ukraine to the US

The US premiere of Shchedryk took place at the prestigious Carnegie Hall in New York in 1922. The song was an immediate hit with critics writing about it in American newspapers.

New York record company Brunswick produced a recording of the song, which further bolstered its North American success. The Ukrainian singers went on to perform in big music halls and universities across the US.

“Their work is an expression of the highest form of art and our Princeton audience was enthusiastic in its approval and appreciation,” John Grier Hibben, the president of Princeton University in 1922, wrote in a letter. The successful American tour led to performances in other countries in the region, from Mexico to Brazil in the south and Canada to the north.

Christmas transformation

Peter Wilhousky, an American conductor with Ukrainian descent, heard Shchedryk and adapted it for a young English-speaking choir. He concentrated on the “merry tinkle of the bells” in the music, and wrote around that theme, according to a letter he wrote to Ukrainian musicologist Roman Savytsky.

The swallow changed to bells, and the Ukrainian spring to American Christmas. In the 1910s to 1920s, holiday cards depicted both the bird and bells. The song's popularity grew rapidly with many music teachers asking to receive a manuscript of the song. In 1936, Wilhousky published the musical score giving it its new title, Carol of the Bells, but rightfully crediting the late Leontovych.

The song quickly became a staple during Christmas, with many choirs, bands and orchestras performing it in concerts. American films, television shows and even advertisements by famous brands used it, carving its haunting melody into the hearts and minds of audiences in the US and beyond.

Updated: December 27, 2023, 9:45 AM