Christmas FeaturesChristmas Music

Carol of the Bells

The story of Carol of the Bells is hardly as well known as the song itself. It has been re-interpreted over and over by a variety of artists — most recently by Lindsey Stirling:

Stirling, who seems to command you watch as much as listen, captures the original spirit of Carol of the Bells simply by making it more about the music than of Christmas.

Such was the case originally with Carol of the Bells. The song was composed by Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych in 1914, who crafted the piece based on traditional Ukrainian folk chants that welcomed the New Year and the hope of spring. Christmas had nothing to do with it.

What’s more, Carol of the Bells was written to be performed by choirs — and it featured the acappella voice as it’s only instruments.

The original lyrics derived from Ukrainian folk songs celebrating the coming of spring in the form of a swallow who enters a house singing a song of coming wealth. Such folk songs were often performed by young girls who would go home to home singing the song and being rewarded with baked goods and treats.

The song was meant to promote Ukrainian culture. First performed by students at Kiev University in December of 1916 the song was again picked up by the Ukrainian National Chorus, who toured with it in Europe and later in the United States.

The song’s Christmas lyrics were written by Peter J. Wilhousky, who went on to later fame as a composer and conductor. Wilhousky, whose family heritage was Ukrainian, thought the four-note theme of the song sounded like hand bells. Working for NBC Orchestra in the emerging field of radio and entertainment, Wilhousky re-imagined the song as a Christmas tune, naming it Carol of the Bells and copyrighted the work with Christmas lyrics in 1936.

Given his radio exposure and the timing of that exposure in American culture it quickly became a classic American Christmas tune.

Which sounds better with this song — the instrument or the voice? You decide:

Father of 7, Grandfather of 7, husband of 1. Freelance writer, Major League baseball geek, aspiring Family Historian.