History of Carol of the Bells

Christmas sleigh bells
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Singing Christmas carols is a great way to spread the holiday spirit. Whether it's singing in your living room with your family or enjoying a quality performance from a professional choir, it is a fun activity for kids and adults alike.

While all the tunes may sound familiar, not many know the history and origins of the Christmas carols we know and love today. Let's delve into the history of the popular Christmas carol, Carol of the Bells, which has its roots in the melody of an old Ukrainian folk song called, Shchedryk.


Shchedryk was composed by Ukrainian composer and music teacher, Mykola Dmytrovych Leontovych, (1877-1921) in 1916. The title of the song means "the little swallow" in English. This song is about a sparrow that flies into a home and sings to the family about the bountiful year that awaits them.

Not originally a Christmas tune, Shchedryk is actually a song to celebrate New Years. Thus, it was first performed in Ukraine on the night of January 13, 1916. Although this date is 12 days after New Years Day on the Gregorian calendar, Shchedryk's premiere was not actually a belated New Years celebration. While the Gregorian calendar is the most used calendar internationally, Orthodox Churches in Ukraine continue to use to Julian calendar. According to the Julian calendar, January 13 was considered New Year's Eve in the year 1916.

English Lyrics

In the United States, Shchedryk was first performed on October 5, 1921, at Carnegie Hall by the Alexander Koshetz's Ukrainian National Chorus. Peter J. Wilhousky (1902-1978) was a popular American composer and choral conductor at the time who was of Ukrainian ethnic origins. When he heard Shchedryk, he decided to write new lyrics in English to accompany the song's melody in 1936.

Wilhousky copyrighted the new lyrics and the song is what we now know as Carol of the Bells. As the title implies, this hauntingly beautiful song is about the sound of bells come Christmas time. The popular carol has since been performed countless times, with renditions by Richard Carpenter, Wynton Marsalis, and the Pentatonix.

Excerpt of Lyrics

Hark how the bells,
sweet silver bells,
all seem to say,
throw cares away

Christmas is here,
bringing good cheer,
to young and old,
meek and the bold,