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!

A Great and Mighty Wonder

A mid-nineteenth century translation of a seventh century Greek carol put to the music of a sixteenth-century German tune at the beginning of the twentieth century, this carol is representative of the technique of borrowing from pre-existing carols which many of todays most popular Christmas songs arise from.

The text of A Great and Mighty Wonder comes from serial carol author John Mason Neale (1818-1866) who is perhaps best known from Good King Wenceslas. Neale had become influenced by the Oxford Movement within the Church of England while at Trinity College, Cambridge and was later ordained as a priest in 1841, becoming the Vicar of Crawley in 1842 where he was appalled that a churchwarden would stand on the altar to open the east window. His Oxford Movement orientation would bring him into conflict with members of his congregation and his diocesan bishop and by 1846 he was forced to leave he position to become the warden of Sackville College almshouses close to East Grinstead, where he remained for the last two decades of his life. His salary of £27 a year was comparatively low, but more damaging to Neale was that for the majority of this period he was denied the right to administer the sacrament at Holy Communion due to his introduction of a rood screen and vested altar which was seen as Catholic influenced by others in the church. While this may have frustrated Neale, it led him to have time to spend on his hobby of translations of early Church hymns for which he is now renowned.

Neale aimed to bring the rich traditions of the Eastern Orthodox Church into the practice of the Church of England and saw the translation of carols as a means to do so. His Hymns of the Eastern Church, published in 1862, features this carol as a translation of a poem by St Germanus who lives from 634 to 734 (although Neale incorrectly attributed it to St Anatolius) and was sung in Greece on Christmas Day.

The hymn that Neale translated consisted of two stanzas, which were reversed in order in the English translation which consists of six verses – the first stanza beginning with the verse translated as “While thus they sing your monarch”. The third verse of the translation is in fact the ending of the original hymn.

For the 1906 book The English Hymnal the translation by Neale had to be modified slightly to fit to the German folk carol “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen” which would provide the backing music. In this Neale”s third verse would become the carol”s refrain, but would lose its first line in the process. The 1906 version was modified again, omitting the last verse, in the 1950 Hymns Ancient and Modern but was restored in 1962″s Baptist Hymn Book as well as the Church Hymnary.

Percy Dearmer”s 1931 Songs of Praise also featured the carol with a revised first and second verse, closer in content to the German hymn from which the music came, as well as changing the word ransom to succour later in the carol.

In a more modern version, the 1986 Carols for Today changes the first verse again and the last line of the refrain to the less gendered “And peace on earth. Amen”


A great and mighty wonder
Our Christmas festal brings:
On earth a lowly infant,
Behold the King of kings!

The Word is made incarnate,
Descending from on high;
And cherubim sing anthems
To shepherds from the sky.

And we with them, triumphant,
Repeat the hymn again:
“To God on high be glory,
And peace on earth to men!”

While thus they sing your Monarch,
Those bright angelic bands,
Rejoice, ye vales and mountains!
Ye oceans, clap your hands!

Since all He comes to ransom,
By all be He adored;
The Infant born in Bethlehem,
The Savior and the Lord!

And idol forms shall perish,
And error shall decay,
And Christ shall wield His scepter,
Our Lord and God for aye.

Alternative 1st and 2nd verses by Percy Dearmer, 1931

A great and mighty wonder,
A full blessed cure!
The Rose has come to blossom
Which shall for ay endure

Word has dwelt among us
The true light from on high!
“To God on high be glory,
And peace on earth to men!”

Alternative 1st verse from 1986 Carols for Today

A great and mighty wonder,
Redemption drawing near!
The Virgin bears the infact,
The Price of peace is here.

A Song Was Heard At Christmas

While many think of Christmas Carols as pieces of music composed long before living memory, there also remains an active tradition of carol making for a contemporary audience. This carol fits into this modern tradition and was written by Timothy Dudley-Smith, a very prominent British hymn writer who has written at least 250 carols and hymns in his lifetime.

About the Author

Timothy Dudley-Smith is perhaps most known for his version of Manificat which goes “Tell out, my soul the greatness of the Lord”. He is still alive and composing carols to this day. He was born in Manchester, in the North of England, on December 26th 1926. He moved to Derbyshire as a child with his family as his father became a schoolmaster there. He was schooled at Tonbridge in Kent before attending Pembroke College, part of the University of Cambridge. It was at university he found his talent for writing – especially comic verse. After his degree he stayed in Cambridge to study theology at Ridley Hall before his ordination into the Church of England in the year 1950.

His ecclesiastical career began with a job as a curate in London”s suburbs, followed by a return to Cambridge to run their Mission then back to London to run the Boys” Club in Bermondsey and be editor of the Crusade magazine. This was followed by fourteen years at Hart&#8217s argument is similar to a player remaining on 15 against a ten after which mentioning the dealer switched up a 6 along with a king. the Church Pastoral Aid Society before he became the Archdeacon of Norwich and in 1981 to 1992 the Suffragan Bishop of Thetford. He has since retired and lives in Salisbury.

It seems surprising which such a busy career Dudley-Smith had any time to write hymns and carols. He managed to do this by producing them while on his annual holidays in Cornwall with his family.

The Carol

The imagery in the carol is of four key Christmas themes – Jesus as a child, the star, the tree and singing – but uses these Nativity based themes to make a wider Christian theological point. See for instance the link between the Christmas Tree and the Cross of Calvary in verse three.

The song has several musical accompaniment choices. Timothy Dudley-Smith prefers Alford by J. B. Dykes, but other pieces that have been used include Cherry Tree Carol and Holy Apostles.

The carol came to life in August 1978 during a weekend holiday in Cornwall. Originally entitled A Star There Was At Christmas changed substantially over the weekend during both writing and consideration of the hymn while walking. The song was first seem in a Christmas Card sent by Dudley-Smith”s family doctor,  J. P. English, the Lord Mayor of Norwich, in December 1978. It would later appear in Dudley-Smith”s first published poetry anthology Lift Every Heart.

There is some variation of the carol, with the third line of verse two sometimes being changed to read “That all might know the way to go” as well as the fourth line of the fourth verse being changed to “The Song of God made man”. The author himself suggests these are allowed changes to his hymn in Lift Every Heart.