Carol of the Bells – The Story Behind the Christmas Song

Normally on Friday I post a list of ten things I have found interesting in my reading and listening to various speakers. For the month of December, I am going to instead post the history of a beloved Christmas song.

The one today is one I hope you will take time to read – and then pray for the Ukrainian nation.

I have always loved this song. It is so cheerful and full of the holiday spirit at Christmas time.

The song first came to worldwide recognition when the Ukrainian National Chorus conducted by Alexander Koshetz performed at Carnegie Hall in October 1922. Dressed in their traditional embroidered dress the audience responded to their rendition of the song by cheering for encores and throwing flowers on the stage.

This traditional Ukrainian song was listed on the playbill as “Shchedryk.” This was actually a pagan folk song that was sung on the New Year and had nothing to do with bells or Christmas. The song tells of a swallow summoning the master of the house to look at the coming spring season and the harvest it will bring. In 1916 composer and teacher, Mykola Leontovych added music to the lyrics. He had worked for several years on his arrangement and orchestration of “Shchedryk.” He sent his arrangement to the director of the National Chorus in August 1916 and several months later it was performed by the choir in Kyiv.

Original version of the Ukrainian song

This song is closely associated with Ukraine’s history. When the Romanov dynasty fell in March 1917, the Ukrainian People’s Republic was declared in 1918. Its president, Symon Petilura, wanted the world to know about Ukrainian culture in the hopes it would gain support for his new state. So, the Ukrainian National Chorus began a worldwide tour. On their tour they would pass out brochures with information about their new country.

While the choir was touring Europe and the USA, the Cheka, which later became the KGB, began killing thousands in an effort to bring Ukraine back into Russia which was now ruled by the Bolsheviks. This period became known as the Red Terror.

This terror reached to the composer of this song. On January 23, 1921, the composer was shot by an agent of the Soviets, Afanasy Grishchenko. He had asked for shelter for the night at the composer’s family home. During the night he shot Leontovych with a rifle.

Hearing a performance of the original song, Peter J. Wilhousky copyrighted the music and wrote new lyrics (not based on the Ukrainian folk song) which he published in 1936. The new version became popular in the USA and Canada and became associated with Christmas.

By 1921, the short-lived People’s Republic had fallen. Its terriitories were divided between Russia, Poland, Romanis and Czechoslovakia. It was not until the collapose of the Soviet Union in 1991 that Ukraine became an independent nation once again.

While we enjoy this cheerful song with its cheerful lyrics, let us remember we owe our thanks to the Ukrainian nation for this song. Let us pray for this people who have fought so hard and so long for their own country.

Our American version

4 thoughts on “Carol of the Bells – The Story Behind the Christmas Song

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