This is part 26 of an Advent/Christmas series titled “Songs of Christmas.” For other parts of the series see the index. The index also contains the introduction for the series.
“Carol of the Bells” is the Christmas carol that was never intended to be a Christmas carol. In the song’s original writing, Mykola Dmytrovych Leontovych, the carol’s composer, wrote about the awakening of God’s people to the beauty of the Creation. The song was intended to be performed by an a capella choir. There were two other original versions, one for an a cappella women’s choir and the third for a children’s choir that would be accompanied by a piano.
The song, titled “Shchedryk” meaning “The Generous One” gained immediate popularity when it was first performed at Kiev University in Ukraine in 1916. Children loved the song because it was simple enough to be done as a round but could sound quite complex when performed by an adult choir. Then the Bolshevik Revolution occurred along with World War I and Ukraine all but disappeared from the world. During the Soviet period, “Shchedryk” lost popularity among the people.
Meanwhile, in the United States, “Shcedryk” didn’t prove to be very popular. The song was performed to sell-out crowds on two occasions but didn’t gain much headway.
In 1936, Peter Wilhousky, a graduate of what would become Juilliard, was an arranger for the NBC Orchestra. He was looking for new Christmas music for the orchestra to perform when he encounter “Shcedryk.” He said it reminded him of hand bells. Wilhousky wrote a new version of the song with a Christmas theme to be performed by an orchestra. The song was reborn. After the orchestra played the song, the NBC switchboard became a hotbed of activity as people called in wanting either to have the music or a recording of the song. And, this was during the height of the Great Depression!
It wasn’t long before Minna Louise Holman got her hands on the music and wrote new lyrics for the Wilhousky arrangement of the song. When the two were combined, it became a Christmas coral standard.
Like so many Christmas carols, there is a popular legend that goes with this carol too. During the Middle Ages, bells served as a common and important mode of communications. Bells did more than signal the beginning and ending of a school day or mark the time for a religious service. The also served as a warning system at the approach of an enemy, as a fire alarm for the community and more. In the Bible there is no mention of bells at Christ’s birth. There are shepherds, heavenly hosts and a star, but no bells. Yet it would seem that in the Middle Ages, the story began and gained a life of its own that when Jesus was born, every bell on earth began to chime signifying that somewhere in the world something special had happened. It was a tale that any Eastern European child could tell.
Since that time, “Carol of the Bells” has seen many people record it. From The Carpenters to Andy Williams and Julie Andrews to Mannheim Steamroller, the song has had many recorded versions but no performer can truly call the carol there own. It is a carol for the world.
Have a blessed day in the Lord.
Joy and Peace,
Copyright 2016, J. Keith Broyles, All Rights Reserved
Collins, Ace, Stories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.
Collins, Andrew, Stories Behind the Greatest Hits of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.
Gant, Andrew, The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015.
Osbeck, Kenneth W. Joy to the World: The Stories Behind Your Favorite Christmas Carols, Grand Rapids: Kregal, 1999.