Inspired by Carol of the Bells by August Burns Red
Christmas is a wonderful time of year to spend time with family and friends, to sing songs of praise and to acknowledge the amazing gift God gave us through Jesus. For me, finding the history and meaning behind some of my favorite Christmas songs has been something I’ve always enjoyed. So I thought for this month’s devotionals, I would share with you the history of some of the greatest Christmas songs ever written in hopes that you might enjoy them as you sing and hear them this Christmas season. One of my favorite songs is Carol of the Bells. The simple yet beautiful four note melody is such a powerful reminder of the true joy that Christmas can bring.
Here’s The Story:
Although “Carol of the Bells” has become a popular tune during the holidays, the original lyrics had nothing to do with Christmas. The song with a haunting four-note melody was originally a Ukranian folk song written as a “winter well-wishing song,” said Anthony Potoczniak, a Rice University anthropology graduate student. Written in 1916 by Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovich and titled “Shchedryk,” the song tells the tale of a 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 “shchedryj,” which means “bountiful.”
“The swallow is a herald of spring coming,” Potoczniak said, referring to its possible pre-Christian origins. The original lyrics describe the swallow calling out to the master of the home and telling him about all the wealth that he will possess — healthy livestock, money and a beautiful wife.
For a Christmas concert, a choir director by the name of Oleksander Koshyts commissioned Leontovich to write a song based on Ukrainian folk melodies. Using the four notes and original folk lyrics of a well-wishing song he found in an anthology of Ukrainian folk melodies, Leontovich created a completely new work for the choir.
“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 over 1,000 concerts.
Meanwhile, back in Ukraine, the original folk melody that Leontovich used to compose his work was one of many well-wishing tunes sung in many Ukrainian villages on January 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.
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 in Carnegie Hall October 5, 1921.
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 also published the song, despite the fact that the work was 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.” Since then the song has become a popular Christmas tune, particularly among choirs for whom the soprano-alto-tenor-bass arrangement of the song seems custom-made. The song’s opening lines, “Hark! How the bells, sweet silver bells,” coupled with the “ding, dong, ding, dong” countermelody, have been recorded in a variety of formats and styles – from standard choir arrangements to improvisational jazz to sultry soul, and even hard rock.
August Burns Red is a a Christian metal band from Lancaster, PA. “Carol of the Bells” can be found on their full length Christmas album titled “Sleddin’ Hill,” which can be found on iTunes or at their website. For more information about August Burns Red, you can go to their website at www.augustburnsred.com