In the three Saturdays leading up to Christmas, I thought I would share the stories behind three of my favorite Christmas songs. Though I enjoy them all equally, it only seemed appropriate to begin with “Carol of the Bells” because it was never meant to be a Christmas carol.
However, it is probably one of the most recognizable tunes of the season even though most of us couldn’t recite more than a line or two of the lyrics. In fact, many of the most popular versions are strictly instrumental.
Originally, the song was a Ukranian “winter well-wishing” folk song, written in 1916 by Mykola Leontovich. “The [original] 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 song became part of the Ukrainian National Chorus’s repertoire as they toured Europe and North and South America, performing more than one thousand concerts. Americans first heard the tune on October 5, 1921 at a sold-out performance at Carnegie Hall.
American choir director Peter Wilhousky thought the work sounded like bells, so in 1936 he wrote new lyrics to convey that imagery. Because one of the lines reads, “Merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas,” (this is usually the line most of us can sing) it has become a Christmas staple and one of the most recognizable, loved, and iconic Christmas carols.
In fact, it is so popular that almost every performer or band has recorded their own version, from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to Metallica. So far I haven’t heard anyone stray so far afield as to make a real mess of it.
I have included the classic Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s instrumental version and then the beautiful a cappella arrangement by Pentatonix.
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“‘Carol of the Bells’ wasn’t originally a Christmas song.” Rice University News and Media Relations: Office of Public Affairs. 13 Dec. 2004. Web.