The Unknown Ukrainian Carol that everyone knows


Article by: Alya Shandra

There’s a Ukrainian folksong that you know. Except that you don’t know that it’s Ukrainian, and a folksong. The enchanting music that became known to the world as “Carol of the Bells” from the pen of Peter J. Wilhousky was actually composed by Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych in 1904, based on a Ukrainian folk song. Peter J. Wilhousky made his arrangement following a performance of the original song by Alexander Koshetz’s Ukrainian National Chorus at Carnegie Hall on October 5, 1921.  The tune became extremely popular and has been arranged for and covered by many different genres. Here is an arrangement from the US group Pentatonix:

The world-known lyrics of Wilhousky speak about the ringing of bells that call to throw cares away. The original lyrics based on the Ukrainian folk song “Schedryk” are much less known. Though they are based on the same melody, the lyrics of the two songs share nothing in common. This is the original Leontovych arrangement animated by the Ukrainian artist Ev Melekhovets:

The lyrics speak about a swallow that flew into a master’s household and started twittering to him about the increase of his livestock:

Shchedryk shchedryk, shchedrivochka, Shchedryk, shchedryk, a shchedrivka [New Year’s carol];
pryletila lastivochka, A little swallow flew [into the household]
stala sobi shchebetaty, and started to twitter,
hospodarya vyklykaty: to summon the master:
“Vyydy, vyydy, hospodaryu, “Come out, come out, O master [of the household],
podyvysya na kosharu, look at the sheep pen,
tam ovechky pokotylys’, there the ewes are nestling
a yahnychky narodylys’. and the lambkin have been born
V tebe tovar ves’ khoroshyy, Your goods [livestock] are great,
budesh’ maty mirku hroshey, you will have a lot of money, [by selling them]
V tebe tovar ves’ khoroshyy, Your goods [livestock] are great,
budesh’ maty mirku hroshey, you will have a lot of money, [by selling them]
khoch ne hroshey, to polova: if not money, then chaff: [from all the grain you will harvest]
v tebe zhinka chornobrova.” you have a dark-eyebrowed [beautiful] wife.”
Shchedryk shchedryk, shchedrivochka, Shchedryk, shchedryk, a shchedrivka,
pryletila lastivochka. A little swallow flew.

A didukh made from straw

Now, what is a swallow doing around Christmas in Ukraine? The Ukrainian swallows spend their winters south of the Sahara. The culprit of this confusion is the Russian Tsar Peter I, who in 1699 on course to “chop a window to Europe” established New Year to be celebrated on January 1, following the example of the other Christian nations. Before that, Ukrainians celebrated New Year around the spring equinox. From pagan times, it was the reawakening of nature that marked the start of the New Year. The ritual songs called “shchedrivky,” which means “bountiful New Years carols,” were meant to bestow all the earthly riches on a master’s homestead and wish him a fertile year – quite a desirable outcome in an agricultural society.  It was also Peter I who introduced Christmas trees to be used as a celebration attribute. Before that, the Christmas decorations that Ukrainians used were made from straw. The main one used is called didukh and symbolizes fertility.

Modern carolers

Modern carolers

If the swallow around Christmas wasn’t enough for confusion, Ukrainians sing these New Year bountiful shchedrivky not on January 1, but on January 13 – a result of the Orthodox church using the Julian calendar, which runs 13 days later than the Gregorian calendar used by the Catholic church. But teams of carolers start roaming their hometowns five days before, on the Orthodox Christmas which takes place on January 7. They are often dressed as characters present during Christ’s birth in Bethlehem (the three Kings, Angels, shepherds, Herod), but also as the ritual goat, and such characters as the Gypsy and Jew, which had a special place in the life of Ukraine’s village agricultural society, as well as Death that comes to take Herod, and always carry the octagonal Bethlehem star that by Christian legend appeared above the birthplace of Christ and directed the three Kings to visit the newborn Child. Singing Christian carols about the nativity of Christ as well as pre-Christian songs about the creation of the world and bestowing blessings on the families they visit, the teams move along their hometown, gathering treats along the way.

From pre-Christian times, the holiday of Christmas celebrated on the winter solstice was one that linked the visible and invisible world and opened windows into dimensions – those inhabited by spirits and ancestors of the family. On this day, animals could speak, humans made peace with each other, and the living and the dead gathered at the ritual Lent dinner with 12 dishes, originally to the number of the 12 months, but now to the number of Apostles.

To this day, the tradition of Christmas caroling lasting up to 40 days in some regions of Ukraine opens a door into a reality connecting past generations with those of today, heavens with the earth, and in which the mundane gives way to festivity for old and young. This happens in villages and in cities, outdoors and indoors – wherever the teams of carolers might happen to bring ancient and new verses of peace and celebration. You can watch how everyday life gets transformed in a busy Ukrainian metropolis when a swallow leads caroling kids on their yearly quest in this animation put to a cover of Leontovych’s Shchedryk, known worldwide as Carol of the Bells, produced by Oleh Skrypka:

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  1. Avatar Luba Petrusha says:

    There are 12 dishes in the Sviat Vechir supper, not “12 meals.” They represented the 12 months (moons) of the year, not the 12 apostles–after all, this is a pre-christian tradition.

    1. Avatar olya powzaniuk says:

      HNY-2015! how can Sviat Vechir be pre-Christian?? and why then, non-dairy and meatless?

      1. Oleksandra Shandra Oleksandra Shandra says:

        Sviat-Vechir was celebrated long before Christ’s birth as the Day of the creation of the world around the winter solstice. As for dairy and meatless, the explanation I know is that they are the most archaic of meals that we still ritually eat (for instance, kutia is wheat that is not even ground), and that means non-dairy and meat. In any case, the holiday has a new meaning now and has become Christianized.

        1. Avatar olya powzaniuk says:

          well…those words SVIAT VECHIR means “holy night”, so what is HOLY in the pre-christian trypylian period?? i don’t know. secondly….archaic meals? I am going to try to dig into that one….someone at my church probably knows the roots of that tradition. and Kutia was served not because its -non dairy and meatless. The 12 course meal was ALL non-dairy and meatless. Kutia is made from Honey, wheat grains, poppy seeds, raisins and nuts. and made to honor the ‘deceased family members’ that cannot be present at the meal. and they way i heard it…it was tossed against the ceiling, and if it stuck, it meant something, and if it didn’t stick to the ceiling, that meant something else! but I don’t know what!!!! /LOL

          1. Avatar Luba Petrusha says:

            The Trypillian period was Neolithic (to about 2500 BC); much happened between that time and the adoption of Christianity in 988. The empire of Kyivan Rus was one of the more civilized parts of Europe, and worshipped the old Slavic gods.

            Christians do not have a monopoly on holiness. The Holy Night in question was an ancient slavic holiday celebrating the winter solstice, the return of the sun. It was a harvest festival of sorts–on that night it was believed that the gods Dazhboh and Veles came into people’s homes. Dazhboh was the god of the sun, and made the crops grow. The people wanted to show off their harvest to him, who made it possible. The dishes served that night were meant to contain samples of all of the food that had been harvested that year.

            Veles was the god of livestock. It was believed that animals had the gift of speech that night, and Veles would question them about how they had been treated that year; if well treated, the animals would multiply in the following year. If not…… So as not to offend Veles, no animal products were to be served that night.

            Kutia and uzvar, the food and drink of the gods, were the only mandatory foods at that meal; the other 10 varied regionally. They were offered to the gods, and to the ancestors. Kutia was made from 3 ancient foodstuffs–wheat, honey and poppy seeds. Uzvar was made from the household’s own dried fruit. A spoonful of the kutia was thrown against the ceiling; the number of poppy seeds that clung to the ceiling signified how well the chickens would lay, how many bees there would be int he next year (the story varied).

            These are our ancient customs; the christians later took them over and tried to change their meanings, but they precede christianity.

            All this information was taken for Stepan Kylymnyk’s “The Ukrainian Year in Folk Rituals,” one of the more definitive works of Ukrainian ethnography.

      2. Avatar Horsewoman says:

        To add to the great answers already given you: non dairy and meatless to honour animals’ sacrifice in giving us their lives. Also, a vestige of the ancient tradition of animal communication. For thousands of years, humans communicated telepathically and intuitively with other species.

        Until the church and patriarchy terrorized humanity into believing animals were inferior and that Nature was not our greatest teacher. This is how male despots gained immense riches, and power over our daily lives and even our minds. For example, you believe that sacredness did not exist before Christianity. This is brainwashing. There are sincere Christians, but religion itself was established at immense cost in terms of bloodshed and mind control of the masses.

        Ukrainians domesticated the horse and wolf using these intuitive gifts. Prior to that, we hunted with telepathy. African tribespeople still hunt using intuitive skills. If we had to run 40 miles in the wrong direction carrying a spear without knowing where the antelope would be, homo sapiens would never have survived. The tradition of sharing our meatless meal with animals derives from honouring this intimate connection with Nature.

    2. Oleksandra Shandra Oleksandra Shandra says:

      thanks, dishes it will be. I’ll add about the 12 months, but I hardly hear about the months meaning anymore, seems that this element of the tradition has been replaced with a new meaning

      1. Avatar качаришка says:

        well, customs evolve… with the intro of Christianity in 988, the rituals remained but the meanings have changed

  2. Avatar olya powzaniuk says:

    Great Article- but I would go softer on the statement “you didn’t know it’s Ukrainian and a folksong”. Alya, before you started writing here and Maidan opened up the worlds’ eyes to Ukraine, this Carol has been playing in the USA radio stations for decades during Christmas, and introduced as a “Ukrainian Carol”. As a matter of fact, lots of Ukrainian music and art has exposure here in the West and USA, and as Ukrainian, not russian, slavic etc.

    1. Avatar Paul P. Valtos says:

      Despite what the world thinks and despite FDR’s referral to Stalin as Uncle Joe, most immigrants from Eastern Europe had no love for Russia. Poles had a hatred for the partition and persecution with the Czar’s brother living in the King’s palace in Warsaw, the constant war with Russia by the Austrians who were between Russia and it’s objective, Istanbul or Constantinople, the Ukrainians for the subjugation of Eastern Ukraine, the Jews with the pogroms and limited rights, and a list of grievances or real hatred for Russians by Immigrants in the USA. America is a country of immigrants and a great deal of them came to America from 1850 to 1920 before the quota lists were changed. Ukraine was a country where those things Slavic could be honored without reference to Russia, imperialism, subjugations, cruelty, or outright nastiness.

  3. Avatar olya powzaniuk says:

    Christmas Trees first appeared in Europe, with of course the Germans and their special tree ornaments, replacing the fruits and nuts that were part of the pagan tree celebration. So as a tradition, it originated in Germany and became a tradition in Q.Victoria’s royal family. then it spread eventually to the wealthy class after her marriage to Prince Albert. The Germans introduced the tree to Canada and US in the late 1700s, with Easton PA claiming to be the place where the German locals put up the first tree. and I question whether Peter the Great brought the ‘christmas tree’ idea in 1699 to the East, almost 80 years before that tradition became popular in europe.

    1. Avatar Luba Petrusha says:

      Peter I changed the day of the New Year to January 1st, but did not introduce Christmas trees. Rather, he decreed that the New Year should be celebrated with evergreens: “Fir tree, pine and juniper branches and trees shall be used to decorate houses and gateways along main streets; salvos shall be fired from small canons and rifles, projectiles launched, and other lights lit as many as possible…”

      The tradition of Christmas tree was started in Russia in 1817; Tsarina Alexandra Fyodorovna, the wife of Tsar Nicholas I, brought this tradition to Russia from Germany. Initially small fir trees were used to decorate the tables in the Winter Palace, in St. Petersburg to remind the Tsarina of the fir trees decorated with lit candles of her childhood in Prussia.

      This practice spread among the upper classes, and larger trees were placed in public places, In Ukraine the Russophile upper classes copied this tradition, too, but it did not percolate down to the working classes or the villagers.

      Trees did not become common in in Russia/Ukraine until the 1930s, when Stalin decreed them to be part of the New Year’s celebration in 1937.

      (Western Ukraine has a bit different history–introduced from Austria in the mid 1800s, mostly among upper classes and some city people; also became common only in the 1930s.)

  4. Avatar Orysia Tracz says:

    Olyu, if you say “.it
    was tossed against the ceiling, and if it stuck, it meant something,
    and if it didn’t stick to the ceiling, that meant something else! but I
    don’t know what!!!! /LOL” —

    that says it all!

    Please get more informed before commenting. And “holy” is not necessarity just a Christian term, so pre-Christian stuff can be holy also.

    1. Avatar olya powzaniuk says:

      I thought that “don’t know what” was a pretty good disclaimer, at least for most people it is. and I don’t see any authority on the subject writing here!
      And as to the origins of the word HOLY…..??
      The word “holy” in its modern form appears in Wycliffe’s Bible of 1382. So I don’t really think that the word had the same meaning in the pre-christian worlds that you are referring to.

      1. Avatar Horsewoman says:

        Olya, as already has been said to you. Please don’t come on public forums and represent yourself as a knowledgeable Ukrainian. Most of us practice dva veria, dual faith. We faithfully honour both the pagan traditions, e.g., pysanka making, and Christianity. Your willful lack of knowledge and “I don’t know what” is embarassing.

      2. Avatar Orysia Tracz says:

        In no way was my intention to “slapping” you in public. Apologies. But — if you don’t know enough about the subject, ask, but don’t post misinformation.

  5. Hello Euromaidan press. I refer to your article with some news about it. Perhaps you are unaware that the original text has been adapted to English and is receiving attention here in England. Here is the youtube video here is the prestigious London choral premiere in this year of the translation of the original here is its first mention and explanation on london radio at 43 minutes 30 seconds