Carol of the Bells – the “Unknown Ukrainian carol” that everyone knows

by ALYA SHANDRA
December 14, 2018
This article originally appeared in EUROMAIDAN PRESS

modern-day carolers dressed with elements of traditional costumes

Often singing the song the rest of the world knows as “Carol of the Bells”, Ukrainian carolers start making their rounds five days before Orthodox Christmas (January 7).

There’s a Ukrainian folksong that you know. Except that you don’t know that it’s Ukrainian, and a folksong. The enchanting music that from the pen of Peter J. Wilhousky became known to the world as “Carol of the Bells” was composed by Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych in 1904 based on a Ukrainian folk song. Wilhousky made his arrangement following a performance of the original song by Alexander Koshetz’s Ukrainian National Chorus at Carnegie Hall on October 5, 1921.  The tune became extremely popular and has been arranged for and covered by many different genres.

The world-known lyrics of Wilhousky speak about the ringing of bells that call to throw cares away. The original lyrics based on the Ukrainian folk song “Schedryk” are much less known. Though they are based on the same melody, the lyrics of the two songs share nothing in common. The original lyrics speak about a swallow that flew into a master’s household and started twittering to him about the increase of his livestock.

Now, what is a swallow doing around Christmas in Ukraine? The Ukrainian swallows spend their winters South of the Sahara. The culprit of this confusion is the Russian Tsar Peter I, who in 1699 on course to “chop a window to Europe” established New Year to be celebrated on January 1, following the example of the other Christian nations. Before that, Ukrainians celebrated New Year around the spring equinox. From pagan times, it was the reawakening of nature that marked the start of the New Year. The ritual songs called “shchedrivky,” which means “bountiful New Years carols,” were meant to bestow all the earthly riches on a master’s homestead and wish him a fertile year – quite a desirable outcome in an agricultural society.

Traditional Ukrainian “didukh”

It was also Peter I who introduced Christmas trees to be used as a celebration attribute. Before that, the Christmas decorations that Ukrainians used were made from straw. The main one used is called didukh and symbolizes fertility.

If the swallow around Christmas wasn’t enough for confusion, Ukrainians sing these New Year bountiful shchedrivky not on January 1, but on January 13 – a result of the Orthodox church using the Julian calendar, which runs 13 days later than the Gregorian calendar used by the Catholic church.

But teams of carolers start roaming their hometowns five days before, on the Orthodox Christmas which takes place on January 7. They are often dressed as characters present during Christ’s birth in Bethlehem (the three Kings, Angels, shepherds, Herod), but also as the ritual goat, and such characters as the Gypsy and Jew, which had a special place in the life of Ukraine’s village agricultural society, as well as Death that comes to take Herod, and always carry the octagonal Bethlehem star that by Christian legend appeared above the birthplace of Christ and directed the three Kings to visit the newborn Child. Singing Christian carols about the nativity of Christ as well as pre-Christian songs about the creation of the world and bestowing blessings on the families they visit, the teams move along their hometown, gathering treats along the way.

From pre-Christian times, the holiday of Christmas celebrated on the winter solstice was one that linked the visible and invisible world and opened windows into dimensions – those inhabited by spirits and ancestors of the family. On this day, animals could speak, humans made peace with each other, and the living and the dead gathered at the ritual Lent dinner with 12 dishes, originally to the number of the 12 months, but now to the number of Apostles.

To this day, the tradition of Christmas caroling lasting up to 40 days in some regions of Ukraine opens a door into a reality connecting past generations with those of today, heavens with the earth, and in which the the mundane gives way to festivity for old and young. This happens in villages and in cities, outdoors and indoors – wherever the teams of carolers might happen to bring ancient and new verses of peace and celebration.