“Carol of the Bells”: Ukrainian folk song, U.S. Christmas carol, and now a symbol of freedom


The Ukrainian folk song that became a symbol of freedom and a popular U.S. Christmas carol

Image of Charles Jay, author

by Charles Jay for Daily Kos, published Sunday, December 25, 2022 at 8:30:11p EST

KYIV, UKRAINE - FEBRUARY 13: Ukrainian Choir Shchedryk rehearses in the Palace of Children and Youth on February 13, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine. The United States and its allies have issued a series of warnings about a potential invasion by Russia, trying to deter Vladimir Putin by exposing his next possible moves. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government has called for calm among its public.  (Photo by Pierre Crom/Getty Images)
Ukrainian Choir Shchedryk rehearses in the Palace of Children and Youth on Feb. 13, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine.

‘Tis the holiday season and the bells are ringing. Almost everyone has probably heard numerous versions of the popular Christmas song “Carol of the Bells.” But few people know that this song was actually adapted from a traditional Ukrainian folk chant, “Shchedryk.”

And “Shchedryk” has taken on even more significance this holiday season because a century ago the folk song became a symbol of Ukrainians’ desire for freedom at a time when the country was being occupied by Soviet Russian invaders in the aftermath of World War I. “The story of Shchedryk is the story of the Ukrainian fight for independence,” said Tina Peresunko, a leading expert on the song’s history who is currently a research fellow at the National Academy of Sciences in Kyiv.

The song’s title is derived from the Ukrainian word “shchedryj,” or bountiful. The song originally had nothing to do with Christmas. Instead, it was one of the traditional “winter well-wishing songs” sung in Ukrainian villages on Jan. 13—New Year’s Eve on the Julian calendar—by young girls going house to house. The girls sang the folk chant predicting good fortune for the New Year, and were rewarded with baked goods and other treats.

The original lyrics tell the tale of a swallow flying into a household and calling out to the master of the home and describing to him all the wealth that he will possess in the upcoming year—healthy livestock, money, and a beautiful wife, according to cultural anthropologist Anthony Potoczniak, who is of Ukrainian descent. He said the swallow “is a herald of spring coming.”

Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych adapted the folk chant to create a choral masterpiece—with a haunting recurring four-note motif as an ostinato, a continually repeated musical phrase or rhythm—on a commission from Oleksander Koshyts, conductor of the Ukrainian Republican Kapelle. It was first performed in December 1916 at the Kyiv Philharmonic.

Here is a video of the original version of Leontovych’s composition with the Ukrainian lyrics and an English translation:

Leontovych adapted the folk song at a time of political and social upheaval in Ukraine. The tsarist Russian regime that had ruled Ukraine was collapsing, and Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks eventually took power in St. Petersburg in late 1917.  

On Jan. 22, 1918, Ukraine declared its independence from Russia, establishing the Ukrainian People’s Republic, with its capital in Kyiv. The Bolsheviks set up a rival Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in eastern Ukraine with Kharkiv as its capital. In January 1919, the Paris Peace Conference began with the aim of drawing up post-World War I European boundaries. Ukrainian President Symon Petliura decided to engage in cultural diplomacy to make Ukraine’s case for international recognition.

In the program notes for a Dec. 4 Carnegie Hall concert “Notes From Ukraine,” Peresunko wrote:

At this moment in history, the world did not know much about Ukraine. Centuries of Russian propaganda had declared that Ukrainians and Russians were one people. And to this end, the Bolsheviks who seized power in Moscow immediately launched a full-scale offensive on Kyiv.

In hopes of persuading the West to support Ukraine, Petliura launched a mission of cultural diplomacy. In January 1919, Petliura sent a choir on tour throughout Europe to demonstrate with song the difference between the Ukrainian people and the Russian people and to promote Ukraine’s right to be independent.”

The Ukrainian National Chorus, under Koshyts direction, left Kyiv to begin its tour on Feb. 4, 1919, a day before the Red Army captured the city. Over the next two years, the choir performed hundreds of concerts in 45 cities in 10 European countries, and at each concert its members handed out brochures about their country and sang what would become the country’s national anthem: “The glory and freedom of Ukraine has not yet perished.”

The standout hit of their repertoire was “Shchedryk,” which received standing ovations and demands for encores from audiences everywhere. The Brussels-based newspaper Le XX Siecle called it “a masterpiece of folk art.”

But the Paris Peace Conference did not result in diplomatic recognition or military support for the independent Ukrainian state. In December 1922, Ukraine became part of the Soviet Union, with Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Romania acquiring some territory in western Ukraine.

The composer Leontovych was killed at his father’s home on Jan. 23, 1921, by an agent of the Cheka, the early Soviet secret police and forerunner of the NKVD and KGB. His murder was part of a campaign by Soviet Russia to destroy Ukraine’s intelligentsia. When Stalin came to power, his music was banned as “irrelevant” and would not be performed again in the USSR until the late 1950s.

Despite losing their homeland, the Ukrainian National Chorus launched a tour of the United States in 1922. “Shchedryk” was performed for the first time in North America on Oct. 5, 1922, to a sold-out audience at New York’s Carnegie Hall. The chorus would perform in 36 states and 115 cities to rave reviews.

A playbill from the Ukrainian National Chorus’ concert tour of U.S. universities and cities from October to December of 1922, which kicked off at Carnegie Hall. Carnegie Hall Rose Archives

The first recording of “Schedryk” was released in October 1922, in New York on the Brunswick label.

The chorus went on to perform in Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Cuba, and Canada. After the chorus’ performance in Rio de Janeiro, Brazilian writer Henrique Coelho Neto wrote: “Sing captive Ukraine, sing little swallows! The spring you are waiting for will come.”

The tour officially ended in 1924, but Koshyts and some of his singers stayed in New York and continued to perform during the 1930s. During one of the concerts, an American composer and choir conductor Peter Wilhousky, who was of Ukrainian descent, heard “Shchedryk.” He decided to include the song in the repertoire of the school choir he was conducting. “Since the youngsters would not sing in Ukrainian, I had to compose a text in English,” he wrote to the Ukrainian Weekly in the 1970s. “I discarded the Ukrainian text about ‘shchedryk’ and instead concentrated on the merry tinkle of the bells which I heard in the music.”

Wilhousky copyrighted the new lyrics in 1936. He also rearranged the melody for orchestra with the new English lyrics for a radio show featuring the NBC Symphony Orchestra. And so “Shchedryk” was transformed into “Carol of the Bells”a Christmas song that begins with the lyrics “Hark! How the bells.” The lyrics reference bells, caroling, and repeated wishes for a “Merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas.”

Since 1936, “Carol of the Bells” has been recorded in more than 150 vocal and instrumental versions. It’s been featured in TV ads and on film and TV soundtracks, most notably the 1990 Christmas comedy film Home Alone.

But now the Ukrainian roots of “Carol of the Bells” as a song symbolizing freedom and independence are being rediscovered in the aftermath of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. On Dec. 4, nearly 100 years after “Shchedryk” had its North American debut, a Ukrainian children’s chorus took to the stage at Carnegie Hall to sing Leontovych’s original version.

And it took a lot more than practice, practice, practice to bring the young singers to Carnegie Hall. The journey of the Shchedryk Children’s Choir displayed the resilience of the Ukrainian people. The New York Times wrote:

The children of the Shchedryk choir … have been hit hard by the war. They have lost friends and relatives in the fighting; watched as Russian bombs have devastated schools, churches and city streets; and grappled with the anxiety and trauma of war. …

But the choristers have also forged a determination to use music as a way to heal Ukraine and promote their culture around the world. …

The choir hopes that the concert will help bring attention to Russia’s continuing attacks, including its recent efforts to damage Ukraine’s supply of electricity, heat and water, threatening a new kind of humanitarian crisis this winter.

“It has been exhausting,” said Mykhailo Kostyna, a 16-year-old singer. “We’re just happy now that we can share Ukraine’s culture and spirit with the world.”

The outbreak of the war left members of the Kyiv-based choir scattered across Ukraine and foreign countries. The choir held virtual rehearsals and its members stayed in touch on social media.

In August, the children’s choir reunited for a series of concerts in Denmark. In the fall, as it prepared for the Carnegie Hall concert, which had been planned before the Russian invasion, the singers rehearsed in Kyiv for the first time since the start of the war on Feb. 24.

When air raid sirens sounded to warn of another Russian missile and drone attack on Kyiv, the children had to rush from their regular rehearsal space in the Palace of Children and Youth to a nearby bomb shelter to resume practicing, using their cellphones and flashlights to light up the dark.

The choir—51 girls and five boys, ages 11-25—left Ukraine on Nov. 19 for Warsaw, where they were given rehearsal space. They finally arrived in New York at the end of November. On Dec. 1, the choir gave an impromptu performance of “Shchedryk” at Grand Central Station—a performance noted in a tweet by the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bridget A. Brink.


And then it was time for the Dec. 4 “Notes From Ukraine” concert, co-sponsored by Ukraine’s foreign ministry, at Carnegie Hall celebrating the centennial of the first U.S. performance of “Shchedryk.” The program showcased traditional and contemporary Ukrainian choral music as well as crosscultural musical exchanges between Ukraine and the U.S. The concert organizers wrote:

“A 1919 review of the Ukrainian Republic Choir in the Genevan journal La Patrie Suisse mused that the Ukrainian National Republic established its independence through the motto, ‘I sing, therefore I am.,’ Ukraine continues to sing and continues to be.”

And here’s the Shchedryk Children’s Choir performing the Ukrainian and English versions of the song with Ukrainian-American choral groups at Carnegie Hall.


The concert, hosted by film director Martin Scorsese and Ukrainian-American actress Vera Farmiga, raised funds for United 24, the global nongovernmental organization and crowdfunding platform launched by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in May to raise funds for Ukraine’s reconstruction. Zelenskyy gave a videotaped speech that began with the concert hall entirely in darkness to highlight the frequent blackouts across Ukraine due to Russia’s missile and drone attacks targeting the country’s infrastructure.

Peresunko concluded the program notes for the Carnegie Hall concert by writing:

Today is the time to remember. Today, Ukraine is once again facing Russian aggression. And again, Ukraine needs the support of the entire democratic world.

We believe that this time Ukraine will win. Carol of the Bells will continue to be heard every Christmas as a generous gift from Ukraine to the world, and as a guarantee of the worthy place Ukrainians hold in the circle of free peoples of the world.

And here is a video history of “Shchedryk”/”Carol of the Bells” that’s worth watching. 

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