Carol of the Bells

Christmas is a time of bells: from the traditional bells of churches, to the bells of sleighs, to children singing Jingle Bells to jovial Santa”s in town center streets ringing bells. Bells have become a symbol of Christmas itself, and this song reflects their ever-presence. No surprise then that bells feature in many of the cultural manifestations of Christmas – from Hollywood films such as The Bells of St. Mary to Christmas songs such as I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. As well as being the omnipresent symbols of Christmas, bells further mark joyous occasions: they are rung out at weddings, christenings, and even on the dawning of peace at the ends of wars.

Their celebratory message is therefore key to their use by Christians at Christmas to celebrate the birth of Jesus. This is not a new phenomenon, but a tradition of Christian churches since the Dark Ages to ring out their bells on Christmas Day. Despite this, the Bible does not document bells ringing at the birth of Christ: none of the Gospels of John, Luke, Mark or Matthew mention their use and neither dp Paul”s letters. Indeed the only reference to bells in the entire Bible is in Zechariah. However there is an early Christian story involving all the world”s bells simultaneously and in unison ringing at the birth of Christ and causing the world”s population to acknowledge the new king. Historical evidence points strongly against this story however, not least due to the relative absence of bells during that period. Still the story has had historical significance, arguably being a method of encouraging church attendance and involvement in Christmas celebrations in the early Church. While the story is no long as popular, it survived longer in Eastern Europe where up to the first half of the twentieth century it was popularly recited.

It is thus unsurprising that the Christmas Carol to encapsulate this story best came from this region. Mykola Dmytrovich Leontovych (1877-1921), a 39 year old composer popular throughout Ukraine and the larger Russian Empire, penned the music to the carol now known as “Carols of the Bells” in 1916. The music, named “Shchedryk”, he created however was originally a non-seasonal hymn, one which celebrated beauty in God”s creation. However circumstances of its first performance, by Kiev University Students in December 1916, caused the first association of the music with the Christmas season. The music itself has both light melodies with three and four-part harmonies. While seemingly complicated, the music is surprisingly easy to learn making the song an instant hit.

It took another two decades for the music to mature into the modern-day carol, thanks to Peter J. Wilhousky (1902-1978). While Wilhousky, born in Passaic, New Jersey in the United States, had never visited Ukraine, or indeed Eastern Europe, he understood the region well given his cultural background. His parents were Czech immigrants to America who taught their children Slavic songs and dances. Indeed as a teenager Wilhousky became a part of the well known and respected New York Russian Cathedral Boys Choir and even sang at the White House in front of President Woodrow Wilson. Later Wilhousky would receive an undergraduate degree from the Juiliard School of Music, after which he produced several Carnegie Hall concerts before becoming the arranger for NBC radio”s symphony orchestra. It was during this time, despite heavy demands on his time, he came across the music to “Shchedryk” which he viewed as fitting the traditional Christian story of carols in unison at Christ”s birth. Thus in 1936 the Carol known today as “Carol of the Bells” was born.

It was his job as arranger for NBC radio”s symphony orchestra, and his ability to play the piece on air in an era when radio, despite the depression, was becoming increasingly popular, which led to the speedy rise to popularity of “Carol of the Bells.” Choirs, including Wilhousky”s own All City High School Chorus, began performing the carol across the United States. Over the next two decades the carol would be recorded thousands of times, performed millions of times and even translated into a variety of languages. Today the Carol is a key aspect of the American caroling tradition. Its popularity was perhaps helped by its use in champagne television advertisements.

Wilhousky is not the only composer to put words to Leontovych”s carol, even if his version is the most successful. M. L . Holman”s 1947 Ring, Christmas Bells, and two anonymous songs, one eponymous written around 1972 (which begins with the line “Hark to the bells, Hark to the bells”), and one entitled “Come, Dance and Sing” written in 1957.


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,

Ding dong ding dong
that is their song
with joyful ring
all caroling

One seems to hear
words of good cheer
from everywhere
filling the air

Oh how they pound,
raising the sound,
o”er hill and dale,
telling their tale,

Gaily they ring
while people sing
songs of good cheer,
Christmas is here,

Merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas,
Merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas,
On on they send,
on without end,
their joyful tone
to every home
Dong Ding dong ding… dong! Bong!