Carol of the Bells

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The signature repeating four-note motif of the song. About this sound Play 

"Carol of the Bells" is a popular Christmas carol composed by Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych in 1914[1] with lyrics by Peter J. Wilhousky. The song is based on a Ukrainian folk chant called "Shchedryk".[2] Wilhousky's lyrics are copyrighted, although the original musical composition is not.

The song is recognized by a four-note ostinato motif (see image to the right). It has been arranged many times for different genres, styles of singing and settings and has been covered by artists and groups of many genres: classical, metal, jazz, country music, rock, and pop. The piece has also been featured in films, television shows, and parodies.



Composer Mykola Leontovych

Conductor of the Ukrainian Republic Choir Oleksander Koshyts (also spelled Alexander Koshetz) commissioned Leontovych to create the song based on traditional Ukrainian folk chants, and the resulting new work for choir, "Shchedryk", was based on four notes Leontovych found in an anthology.[3]

The original folk story related in the song was associated with the coming New Year, which, in pre-Christian Ukraine, was celebrated with the coming of spring in April. The original Ukrainian title translates to "the generous one"[4] or is perhaps derived from the Ukrainian word for bountiful (shchedryj),[3] and tells a tale of a swallow flying into a household to proclaim the bountiful year that the family will have.[5]

With the introduction of Christianity to Ukraine and the adoption of the Julian calendar, the celebration of the New Year was moved from April to January, and the holiday with which the chant was originally associated became Malanka (Ukrainian: Щедрий вечір Shchedry vechir), the eve of the Julian New Year (the night of 13–14 January in the Gregorian calendar). The songs sung for this celebration are known as Shchedrivky.

The song was first performed by students at Kiev University in December 1916, but the song lost popularity in the Ukraine shortly after the Soviet Union took hold.[5] It was introduced to Western audiences by the Ukrainian National Chorus during its 1919 concert tour of Europe and the Americas, where it premiered in the United States on October 5, 1921 to a sold-out audience at Carnegie Hall.[3] The original work was intended to be sung a cappella by mixed four-voice choir.[5] Two other settings of the composition were also created by Leontovych: one for women's choir (unaccompanied) and another for children's choir with piano accompaniment. These are rarely performed or recorded.

English lyric versions[edit]

Wilhousky rearranged the melody for orchestra with new lyrics for NBC radio network's symphony orchestra, centered around the theme of bells because the melody reminded him of hand bells,[5] which begins "Hark! How the bells".[6] It was first aired during the Great Depression,[5] and Wilhousky copyrighted the new lyrics in 1936 and also published the song, despite the song having been published almost two decades earlier in the Soviet Ukraine.[3] Its initial popularity stemmed largely from Wilhousky's ability to reach a wide audience as his role as arranger for the NBC Symphony Orchestra. It is now strongly associated with Christmas because of its new lyrics, which reference bells, caroling, and the line "merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas".[3]

An alternate English version, "Ring, Christmas Bells", featuring Nativity-based lyrics was written by Minna Louise Hohman in 1947.[7] Two other versions exist by anonymous writers: one from 1957 titled "Come Dance and Sing" and one from 1972 that begins "Hark to the bells".[6]

American recordings by various artists began to surface on the radio in the 1940s.[3] The song gained further popularity when it was featured in television advertisements for champagne in the 1970s by French a cappella group the Swingle Singers.[8] "Carol of the Bells" has been recorded into over 150 versions and re-arrangements for varying vocal and instrumental compositions.[9]

Notable performances[edit]


(In chronological order)

Film, television, parodies, and other media[edit]

  • The song appears in the 1990 20th Century Fox film Home Alone as arranged by John Williams.[19]
  • A skit on the December 12, 1990 episode of Saturday Night Live included an advertisement for the musical album A Dysfunctional Family Christmas. "Carol of the Bells" was parodied by Dana Carvey with the lyrics "Leave me alone, please go away...".[20]
  • The song appears in Disney's 1994 film The Santa Clause as a group of carolers are singing the song during the film's opening.[citation needed]
  • An a cappella rendition of the song, performed by the character Mr. Mackey, was featured on the episode "Mr. Hankey's Christmas Classics" from South Park's third season.[21]
  • In episode 10 of the second season of The West Wing, "Nöel", the song is performed by the US Air Force Band & Singing Sergeants at the end of the episode.[citation needed] West Wing director Thomas Schlamme won the 2000 Directors Guild of America Award for Best Dramatic Series for this episode.[22]
  • The band Guster recorded "Carol of the Meows," a parody of the song that replaces all the lyrics with "meows." It was used in "The Chrismukkah That Almost Wasn't," a season 2 episode of The O.C.
  • The Muppets' 2009 parody of the song climaxes with a large bell (set up by Animal) falling on the increasingly frenetic Beaker,[23] which quickly became a viral video that Christmas season.[24]
  • Community featured the song in the end tag of their 2011 Christmas special "Regional Holiday Music", with the heads of the Dean, Chang, Starburns, Magnitude and Leonard singing along.[25]
  • The "Unholy Night" episode (originally aired on December 5, 2012) of the American Horror Story TV series includes a piano version, played by Michael Silverman.[26]
  • The song serves as a theme of sorts for the Joker in the 2013 video game Batman: Arkham Origins.[27]
  • The song is also used at the end of the last episode of the first season of the Netflix series Stranger Things.[28]


  1. ^ Korchova, Olena (December 17, 2012). "Carol of the Bells: Back to the Origins". The Ukrainian Week. Retrieved December 21, 2015.
  2. ^ a b Thompson, Matt (December 2015). "The Ironic Intensity of 'Carol of the Bells'" The Atlantic. Retrieved December 21, 2015.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Almond, B.J. (December 13, 2004). "'Carol of the Bells' wasn't originally a Christmas song". Rice University via EurekAlert! Retrieved December 21, 2015.
  4. ^ Collins, Andrew (2010). "Carol of the Bells" in Stories Behind the Greatest Hits of Christmas. Zondervan: Grand Rapids, Michigan. p. 39. ISBN 9780310327950.
  5. ^ a b c d e Peterson, Lottie (December 20, 2015). "The creation of carols: A look at the history behind 7 beloved holiday songs." The Deseret News. Retrieved December 21, 2015.
  6. ^ a b Crump, William D. (2013). "Carol of the Bells" in The Christmas Encyclopedia. 3rd Edition. McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers: Jefferson, NC. p. 62. ISBN 9780786468270.
  7. ^ Nobbman, Dale V. (2000). Christmas Music Companion Fact Book: The Chronological History of Our Most Well-Known Traditional Christmas Hymns, Carols, Songs And the Writers & Composers Who Created Them. Centerstream Publishing: Anaheim Hills, CA. p. 91. ISBN 1574240676.
  8. ^ Cuddihy, Kevin and Phillip Metcalfe (2005). "Sing It and Swing It" in Christmas's Most Wanted: The Top 10 Book of Kris Kringles, Merry Jingles, and Holiday Cheer. Potomac Books, Inc.: Washington, D.C. p. 74. ISBN 1574889680.
  9. ^ Wytwycky, Wasyl (updated 2010). "Leontovych, Mykola". Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine. Retrieved December 23, 2015.
  10. ^ "November 23, 1955 – December 24, 1955". BING Magazine. Retrieved December 25, 2015.
  11. ^ Eder, Bruce. "Review of Christmas Portrait". Retrieved December 24, 2015.
  12. ^ "RIAA Searchable Database". Recording Industry Association of America. Retrieved December 24, 2015. 
  13. ^ Shah, Niel (December 3, 2015). "How the Trans-Siberian Orchestra Became a Holiday Hit Machine: Behind the transformation from struggling metal band to touring juggernaut". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved December 24, 2015.
  14. ^ "Billboard Music Charts". Billboard Magazine. Retrieved 2007-01-27. 
  15. ^ Goeliner, Caleb (November 19, 2008). "August Burns Red's JB Brubaker On Being A Part Of 'The Spirit' Of Christmas". MTV News. Retrieved December 23, 2015.
  16. ^ Legg, Carlyn (December 1, 2015). "Music for the holiday season". The East Carolinian. Retrieved December 23, 2015.
  17. ^ Savić, Nikola (December 15, 2013). "Marillion Release 'The Carol Of The Bells' Christmas Single". Prog Sphere. Retrieved December 16, 2015. 
  18. ^ Scott, Jason (November 8, 2014). "Leann Rimes Rips Into 'Carol Of The Bells' At CMA Country Christmas". Pop Dust. Retrieved December 23, 2015.
  19. ^ Paget, Antonia (December 20, 2015). "Have-a-go singers who formed a Christmas choir to perform concert in Walton". Liverpool Echo. Retrieved December 23, 2015.
  20. ^ "Dysfunctional Family Christmas". Retrieved 2012-01-09. 
  21. ^ "Mackey of the Bells". Retrieved 2014-04-01. [full citation needed]
  22. ^ "53rd Annual DGA Awards Honoring Outstanding Directorial Achievement for 2000". Directors Guild of America. Retrieved April 2, 2016.
  23. ^ Lascala, Marisa (July 4, 2014). "The Muppets' Fourth of July Performance Will Be Incredible Because Of Course It Will". Bustle. Retrieved December 23, 2015.
  24. ^ Macleod, Duncan (December 26, 2009). "The Muppets sing Carol of the Bells". Inspiration Room. Retrieved December 23, 2015.
  25. ^ Carp, Jesse (2011-12-09). "Community Watch: Episode 10 - Regional Holiday Music". TV Blend. Retrieved 2011-12-26. 
  26. ^ Beard, Lanford (December 8, 2012). "TV Jukebox: 'The Good Wife,' 'Go On,' 'Boardwalk Empire,' and more music-on-TV-moments". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved December 23, 2015.
  27. ^ Suellentrop, Chris (October 27, 2013). "The Crusader Leaps Back Into the Past". The New York Times. Retrieved December 23, 2015.
  28. ^ Schmidt, Patrick (August 2016). "Stranger Things Soundtrack: Listen on Spotify". Retrieved October 6, 2016.