“One seems to hear
Words of good cheer
Words of good cheer
From everywhere (From everywhere)
Filling the air
Oh, how they pound (Oh, how they pound)
Raising their sound
O’er hill and dale
Telling their tale”The Carol of the Bells
Origins of the Quote
Although “Carol of the Bells” has become a popular tune during the holidays, the original lyrics had nothing to do with Christmas.
The song has a haunting four-note melody and was originally a Ukranian folk song written as a “winter well-wishing song. It was written in 1916 by Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovich and titled “Shchedryk,”. The pretty song tells the tale of a swallow flying into a household to proclaim the plentiful year that the family will have. The 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.
The Person Behind the Words
Choir director Oleksander Koshyts commissioned Mykola Leontovich to write a song based on Ukrainian folk melodies for a Christmas concert. Using the four notes and original folk lyrics of a well-wishing song he found in an anthology of Ukrainian folk melodies. He created a completely new work for choir – “Shchedryk.”
‘Shchedryk’ was composed and performed during a time when there was intense political struggle and social upheaval in Ukraine. It was just after the first world war. Koshyts was responsible for forming the Ukrainian National Chorus. It was mandated by a young Ukrainian government, in 1919 to promote Ukranian music in major cultural centers in the West. Traveling 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 Jan. 13 — New Year’s Eve on the Julian calendar. It was customarily sung 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 goodies and other treats.
Some Final Thoughts
Unfortunately, the Ukrainian National Chorus did not limit its performances of “Shchedryk” to the Julian New Year. The reasons behind this are much debated but considered political. Although 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 Oct. 5, 1921.
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 went on to copyright the new lyrics in 1936 and published the song. This – even though the work was published almost two decades earlier in Soviet Ukraine. By the late 1930s, several choirs that Wilhousky directed began performing his Anglicized arrangement during the Christmas holiday season.
Now known as “Carol of the Bells,” the song has become associated with Christmas because of its new lyrics. It includes references to silver bells, caroling, and the line “merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas.”
Check out our Quote of the Day archive where we bring you quotes hand picked by me, Divvya Nirula. Sharing the stories, people, moments behind the inspiration and thought provoking words.