“Shchedryk” (from Ukrainian: Щедрий вечiр, “Bountiful Evening”) is a Ukrainian shchedrivka, or New Year’s carol. It was arranged by composer and teacher Mykola Leontovych in 1916, and tells a story of a swallow flying into a household to sing of wealth that will come with the following spring. “Shchedryk” was originally sung on the night of January 13, New Year’s Eve in the Julian Calendar (December 31 Old Style), which is Shchedry Vechir. Early performances of the piece were made by students at Kyiv University.
“Shchedryk” was later adapted as an English Christmas carol, “Carol of the Bells”, by Peter J. Wilhousky following a performance of the original song by Alexander Koshetz’s Ukrainian National Chorus at Carnegie Hall on October 5, 1921. Wilhousky copyrighted and published his new lyrics (which were not based on the Ukrainian lyrics) in 1936, and the song became popular in the United States, where it became strongly associated with Christmas.
Comment: I always enjoyed the “Carol of the Bells” in all its many arrangements, especially the pure vocals such as the Bel Canto Choir Vilnius version above or the Lviv Airport flash mob version below. Although I never knew of the full background of the song until recently, I always felt it transcends the Christmas season as a carol. Many have called it a haunting melody. To me, it encompasses more than the miracle of Christmas. It captures the awe and mystery of nature and the universe. It’s no surprise that the tune predates Christianity in Ukraine and is so entwined with the animals and seasonal changes that were so much a part of the lives of ancient pagan Ukrainians and other East Europeans.
I remember the Christmas Eve celebrations of our family. We shared the traditional meatless meal, mostly fish, mushrooms and kugelis. I never warmed to the pickled herring, but the fried smelts were always my favorite. My cousin and I would take turns reading the Christmas story from the bible. At the same time, we kept a table setting open for the spirits of our ancestors. We were all as assured of their presence as we were of the Christmas miracle.
Jim McDermott, SJ, an associate editor of the Jesuit magazine “America” wrote an informative article on the history of “Shchedryk” or “Carol of the Bells” and its connection to modern Ukraine’s century long struggle for freedom. This article also links to an embedded podcast of “Hark! The stories behind our favorite Christmas carols” about this particular carol. It’s worth a listen. Even Timothy Snyder in his last lecture of his Yale course on “The Making of Modern Ukraine” talks of the history of “Shchedryk.” That lecture is also worth a listen.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLfFmYWjHtc (Timothy Snyder: The Making of Modern Ukraine. Class 23. the Colonial, the Post-Colonial, the Global)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zGnjL-jQuBU (Lviv Airport flash mob version of “Shchedryk”)