On Orthodox Christmas eve: Carol of the Bells

Christmas Eve is called “Yule Even”, from the name of the ritual food eaten on that day, coliphia (soaked grains). The night before Orthodox Christmas, from the 6th to the 7th of January, people usually did not sleep; they moved from house to house, caroled and feasted. Caroling is an old Christmas rite of praising the Crist Nativity by singing songs. For this, all hosts treated the carolers with Christmas viands.

The caroling genre itself is a "holy festive and celebratory songs while encircling courtyards”. Initially, the custom of encircling courtyards was, certainly, pre-Christian. It was believed that caroling provided owners of the houses with a generous harvest, bovine offspring and well-being in the house. Therefore, those who sang carols tried to visit every house in the neighborhood. Caroling was a kind of ritual that came to us from antiquity. Slavonic people believed that by ritual caroling they could scare away all evil spirits and bring prosperity, welfare and, most important, rich harvest to the house. Nowadays, these and other pagan rituals exist along with Christian holidays. For example, the celebration of the Christ Nativity is still accompanied by caroling. Most of the carols are a heritage of folk art; hence, all of them are interesting and splendid by their semantic structure and sincerely genial joyful mood.

One of these holy songs is Shchedryk (Carol of the Bells), which we recorded on the eve of Christmas from a gramophone record that is stored in the museum Collection Sound Library. The song narrates about a chirping swallow that promises the farmers prosperity during the coming year. This folk song once fascinated the 20th-century Ukrainian composer Nikolai Leontovich, who spent dozens of years working on this song. He presented the first edition of the "Shchedryk" choral version in 1901, and the fifth edition was realized almost twenty years later. In 1916, the choir of Kiev National University brilliantly performed it. It was his arrangement of Shchedryk that made Nikolai Leontovich a famous composer and presented his art work to the world audience. Already in October 1921, the Ukrainian Choir performed "Shchedryk" at the Carnegie Hall, winning the hearts of the audience.

Later, American composer of the Ukrainian origin, Peter Wilhousky, wrote new text in English, turning the traditional “Shchedryk” into the Christmas carol. The melody reminded him of the ringing bells, which served as the main idea for the title. Thus the world-famous version of Shchedryk appeared – “Carol of the Bells”.

Since the 40s, many musicians often recorded the song; almost all concert choral groups perform it on the Christmas Eve. Nowadays, no celebration of Christmas in the world is complete without this song. It sounded as musical score in the films “Home Alone”, “Harry Potter” and many others.

On Orthodox Christmas eve -- Carol of the Bells recorded from Duo-Art paper music rolls on Pianola Steinway Duo-Art Grand, USA (1926) and a Columbia record on the Audio-technica player is in the museum Sound Library.