Shchedryk: The Story of 'Carol of the Bells'

Sheet music and Christmas bells for caroling

The origin of "Carol of the Bells," a traditional Ukrainian New Year's song, can be traced back into the ancient world.
(Image credit: Bigstock/Scott)

As the Christmas season is now upon us, you can tune to any number of local radio stations which most likely will be playing Christmas carols from now until around New Years.

One of the most famous and recognizable Christmas songs is "Carol of the Bells." The song had gotten tremendously more popular in recent years since the Trans Siberian Orchestra covered the song in a modern power ballad style, complete with electric guitars accompanying the traditional string and wind orchestra in "Christmas Eve Sarajevo" from their 1996 debut album, Christmas Eve and Other Stories.

"Christmas Eve Sarajevo" gives most listeners the chills because it is a very powerful song. But what about the original? Who wrote it? What is the meaning behind "Carol of the Bells" and when was it written? The answer may surprise you.

"Shchedryk" is actually the name of the original Ukrainian New Year's song, which was arranged by Mykola Leontovych in 1916. But it eventually became associated instead with Christmas, when in 1936, English composer Peter J. Wilhousky set the song to new and original English lyrics and named the song, "Carol of the Bells."

Bowl with kutia, a traditional Christmas sweet meal in Ukraine

The chant that inspired "Carol of the Bells" was intoned during the Vernal equinox, which represented New Years prior to the Christianization of pagan peoples.
(Image credit: Bigstock/sinenkiy)

The original Ukrainian song is based on an ancient, possibly prehistoric, pagan New Years chant which features an ostinato four-note pattern within the range of a minor third. The music was closely associated with New Years, which in the ancient world, was celebrated on the Vernal equinox, to coincide with the beginning of the sun's new journey through the very first sign of the Zodiac, Aires.

After the introduction of Christianity in Ukraine, New Years began to be celebrated on January 13 of the Julian calendar (or December 31 of the Gregorian calendar) to correspond with the Christian Nativity of Jesus (and symbolically, the return of light to the world since the days start to become longer after the December 21, the Winter solstice).

The original song from 1916, "Shchedryk" ("Bountiful Evening") tells of a little bird that flew into a family's home. The bird magically tells the master of the household that the coming year will be bountiful. As we enter yet another holiday season, I would like to wish you a very Merry Christmas and a happy, healthy (and bountiful) New Year.