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Below are the stories behind some of the most famous Christmas carols, complete with videos:

‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’

‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’

‘Carol of the Bells’

‘O Holy Night’

‘God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen’

‘The Holly and the Ivy’

‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’

‘Ding Dong Merrily on High’

‘I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day’ (from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s ‘Christmas Bells’)

‘Good King Wenceslas’ (for Boxing Day, St Stephen’s Day)



And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father), full of grace and truth.  John 1:14 (KJV)

Happy Christmas to all my readers!

Today’s painting is ‘The Adoration of the Shepherds’ by Anton Raphael Mengs (1728 – 1779).  He was a Protestant from Bohemia who later became a Catholic.  In 1754, he was appointed Director of the Vatican school of painting.

You can read all about it in my 2009 post, Happy Christmas, everyone! That entry also has an excellent Anglican reflection for the day — highly recommended.

John 1 is an annual Gospel reading for Christmas. You can read more about this beautiful passage in the following posts:

Christmas Day — John 1:14 (with commentary from Matthew Poole)

Happy Christmas, one and all! (John 1:1-17)

More Christmas reflections can be found here:

Compliments of the season to all my readers! (features Dr Paul Copan on the manger scene)

A Lutheran defence of Nativity scenes and crucifixes

Christmas prayer intentions

Martin Luther on the birth of Jesus

Those wishing to find out more about our favourite Christmas carols might enjoy:

Jesus’s nature as depicted in Christmas carols

Angel imagery in Christmas carols (Dr Paul Copan on how the Bible portrays them)

‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’

‘O Holy Night’

‘God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen’

‘The Holly and the Ivy’

‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’

‘Ding Dong Merrily on High’

Wherever you are and whatever you do — have a blessed, happy and peaceful day!

As Christmas really is just around the corner, why not take a few minutes to read the stories behind a few famous Christmas carols?

I hope you enjoy these past posts of mine which reveal several interesting facts:

‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’

‘Carol of the Bells’

‘O Holy Night’

‘God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen’

‘The Holly and the Ivy’

‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’

‘Ding Dong Merrily on High’

Jesus’s nature as depicted in Christmas carols

Angel imagery in Christmas carols (Dr Paul Copan on how the Bible portrays them)

(Photo credit: courtesy of Ripon Cathedral)

My mother learned to sing this carol in Latin, customary in the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church when it was ‘Adeste Fideles’. In fact, she never really got to grips with the English words and at times muttered quietly about the loss of the Latin lyrics at Christmas Mass.

Little did she — or I — know about the history of ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’, sung here by King’s College Choir, Cambridge. Also noteworthy is the organist’s mastery of David Willcocks’s arrangement — wow!

It would have surprised my mother to find that a Catholic priest wrote the English lyrics to this carol. Frederick Oakeley, received his Classics degree from Christ Church, Oxford, in 1824. After his ordination in the Church of England, he became a fellow and the chaplain to Balliol College. From 1827, Oakeley became interested in the tractarian — Oxford — movement, known as High Church Anglicanism. This caused him no end of controversy in a subsequent appointment as the minister of Margaret Chapel, where he served between 1839-1845. During that time he added various elements of High Church worship to the services and met with accusations of ‘ritualism’.  Oakeley moved so closely to the Roman Catholic Church that his clerical orders were withdrawn until such time as he would retract his beliefs.

Oakeley wasted no time in crossing the Tiber. In 1845, he joined John Henry Newman’s religious community and was received into the Roman Catholic Church.  He attended seminary and was ordained in 1848, at which point he began to serve at Catholic churches in London. Thirty years before his death in 1880, he was appointed a canon of the Diocese of Westminster, a post in which he served faithfully.

‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ has several verses, not all of which are sung together. This is partly because the carol would take too much time to sing. The other reason is that not all the verses are intended for Christmas. One verse, for instance, is to be sung only at Midnight Mass or on Christmas Day. Another verse, the eighth, is intended solely for Epiphany services. Oakeley translated the verses we use most commonly today from Latin into English. Other lyricists were responsible for writing or translating additional verses.

That much is straightforward. The authorship of the music to ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ is less clear.  Most music scholars today agree that a Catholic layman, John Francis Wade, is the author of the carol we know today. Before that, the English composer John Reading, an Anglican, was also thought to have written the melody. King John IV of Portugal’s name has also been considered. John IV was a composer in his own right and owned one of the largest libraries of music in the world at that time. John IV’s daughter Catherine of Braganza, incidentally, was the wife of England’s Charles II. The two married several years after John’s death.

Now let us look at the life of John Francis Wade (1711-1786). Although he was English, it is unclear whether he was born in England or in Douai, in northern France. In any event, he was a Jacobite, and, if he was born in France, his parents might well have been sympathetic to the cause. The Jacobite movement started when Charles II’s brother, James II of England, was deposed by Queen Mary II and King William III. (We know them today collectively as William and Mary.)

The Jacobite movement is complex and combined various alliances of British Catholics and Protestants for either religious or political reasons. Catholics, like Wade, wanted a restoration of Stuart successors because they would be more sympathetic to their religious practice.  The French allied with the Jacobites and planned to invade Britain. Bonnie Prince Charlie — James II’s grandson, Charles Edward Stuart — was seen to be as the hope of this movement in its later years. He instigated the Jacobite Uprising of 1745, which ended in defeat at the Battle of Culloden (emphasis on the second syllable, which is pronounced ‘lud’).

During the height of this struggle, however, Jacobites communicated with each other in coded language. ‘Bethlehem’ meant ‘England’. Published hymns and poems were embellished with Stuart imagery — oak leaves and white roses — to denote that they contained Jacobite messages. ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ was one of these. It was thought to have been Wade’s ode to the birth of Bonnie Prince Charlie, with ‘faithful’ referring to Jacobites.

Many years ago I read that ‘Ding Dong Merrily on High’ is Prince Charles’s favourite Christmas carol. Those who watch the BBC broadcast of Carols from King’s will know how beautifully King’s College Choir (Cambridge) sing it. Here is their 2006 video:

There turns out to be a Cambridge connection with this carol. George Ratcliffe Woodward read Classics at Gonville and Caius [pron. ‘Keys’] College, Cambridge. He became a deacon in the Church of England in 1874 and was later ordained a priest. It would seem as if Woodward was a High Churchman, as both he and his wife are buried in Walsingham, Norfolk, which is known for its ancient priory and shrine to Our Lady.

Woodward had an avid interest in carols and plainsong. He liked to revive ancient songs and collaborated on several books of carols.

The composer Charles Wood also studied at Cambridge. He pursued his music studies at Selwyn College, where he also taught, before becoming Gonville and Caius’s first Director of Music and Organist. He devoted much of his time to writing arrangements for Anglican church music.

Wood and Woodward collaborated on the Cambridge Carol Book: Being Fifty-two Songs for Christmas, Easter and Other Seasons, published in 1924. The compilation included ‘Ding Dong Merrily on High’, which could have appealed to Woodward’s interest in bellringing.

This carol falls into the Merry England category of resurrecting ancient songs and musical styles, popular during the Victorian era and continuing into the early 20th century. ‘Ding Dong Merrily on High’ came from a secular French tune.  The website Hymns and Carols of Christmas explains:

This carol is a good example of a carol in the original sense of the word (i.e. a secular dance tune) evolving into a carol as it is understood today (i.e. a song for Christmas). The tune first appeared in the Orchesographie, a dance book written by Johan Tabourot (1519-93), a canon of Langres, under the anagram Thoinot Arbeau. ‘Branle l’Officiel’ was to be danced by ‘lackeys and serving wenches and sometimes by young men and maids of gentle birth masquerading as peasants and shepherd’. The dance title, though sometimes translated as ‘The Official Branle’ or ‘The Officers’ Brawl’ (Brawl being the appropriate translation of Branle), might better be translated as ‘The servants’ hall ( l’office) Branle/Brawl’. The very Victorian archaic English lyric was composed early in the 20th century by George Ratcliffe Woodward (1848-1934), the author of several carol books …

One of the best loved Christmas carols is ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’.

Written by John Wesley’s brother — and fellow Oxford graduate — Charles to a melody no longer much sung today, it was meant to be a solemn Christmas hymn, a far cry from the joyous carol we sing today. Here is the version by John Brown University in Arkansas, a stunning rendition:

Over the years, both the lyrics and melody evolved. This is Charles Wesley’s original opening couplet:

Hark! how all the welkin rings / Glory to the King of Kings

‘Hark’ means ‘listen’ and ‘welkin’ was a word used at the time for ‘skies’ or ‘firmament’.

George Whitefield, the famous preacher who worked with the Wesleys, wrote the opening lyrics which we sing today. Decades later, a prominent English musician, William Hayman Cummings, set the lyrics to a composition by Felix Mendelssohn called Festegesang. Mendelssohn had written this cantata in 1840 to commemorate the anniversary of the printing press. Cummings took part of the music and set the lyrics of the carol to it in 1855.

Cummings’s had a prior connection with Mendelssohn. In 1847, the composer appeared in London to conduct his Elijah. Cummings was a teenage chorister singing at that performance. He devoted his life to music as a chorister, organist and professor. He also held a number of appointments at music-related royal societies as well as institutes for the blind.

Mendelssohn, although Jewish by heritage, was baptised a Lutheran at the behest of his parents, who were also later baptised into the Church.  Accounts vary with regard to the Mendelssohns’ resolution of the inner tensions they experienced as a result of embracing Christianity. They took an additional surname, Bartholdy, at the suggestion of one of their relatives. Not everyone was happy with the choice, however, young Felix’s uncle had inherited an estate by that name and thought it would be a way in which the family could appear less Jewish in their Christian identity.

Mendelssohn was a child prodigy and his family moved to Berlin where he pursued his musical training.  He had also studied piano in Paris as a boy. He later married a Protestant Frenchwoman, a clergyman’s daughter. They had five children, one of whom died in childhood from measles. The two daughters married distinguished men. The sons made names for themselves in their own right; one became a notable historian and the other a brilliant chemist who pioneered the manufacture of aniline dye.

Although accounts during his life gave the impression that Mendelssohn was kind and easygoing, he was given to fits of rage and sometimes needed to sleep for extended periods so that these spells would pass. It is thought that his personality traits as well as a genetic predisposition to fatal strokes drove him to an early grave. Like his parents and sister, he died of a series of strokes. He was only 38. Mendelssohn is buried in Trinity Church Cemetery No. 1 in Berlin-Kreuzberg.

Yesterday’s post discussed the rise of the Merry (Merrie) England movement in the Victorian Era. This was a reaction to the Industrial Revolution and popularised older, sometimes embellished, English customs and rituals.

It would not come as a surprise to discover that ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ was part of this movement. The Christmas carols from the 18th and 19th centuries were largely original compositions which evoked a much older period of English history.

‘The Holly and the Ivy’ has a mediaeval sound to it. Indeed, what follows is the Mediaeval Baebes’ recording of this evocative carol, complete with lyrics:

As Anglophiles know, the most prominent plants in England at this time of year are the holly and the ivy. The tradition of singing about the two go back many centuries, probably to pagan times. The two were associated with the equivalent of the ancient Roman Saturnalia, the winter solstice celebration, on December 21 or 22, depending on the year.  Through the ages, holly became associated with men and ivy with women. Ancient songs and rituals developed wherein each sex said their plant was superior to the other. The conflict could be resolved only by kissing under the mistletoe.

What follows is a brief excerpt of one of the oldest of these songs, resident in the British Library, and a more contemporary translation (same link). The older:

Holy stond in the hall, faire to behold,
Ivy stond without the dore, she ys ful sore acold,
Nay, my nay etc [see below]

Holy and hys mery men, they dawnseyn and they syng,
Ivy and hur maydyns, they wepen and they wryng.
Nay, my nay etc’ …

The newer:

Holly stands in the hall, fair to behold:
Ivy stands without the door, she is full sore a cold.
Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis [know];
Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is [the natural order].

Holly and his merry men, they dance and they sing,
Ivy and her maidens, they weep and they wring.
Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;
Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is …

A songbook published in 1926, Early English Lyrics by Chambers and Sidgwick, refers to a manuscript dated 1710:

The holly and the ivy
Now are both well grown
Of all the trees that are in the wood
The holly bears the crown

In 1823, an English journalist, satirist and social campaigner — William Hone — published a book called Ancient Mysteries Described: Especially the English Miracle Plays founded on Aprocryphal New Testament Story extant among the unpublished manuscripts in the British Museum. ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ — with the lyrics we know today — was among the Christmas carols included in it.

However, a set of lyrics about the holly alone appear to have come from a song called the ‘Sans Day [St Day’s] Carol’.  Thomas Beard, who lived in the Cornish village of St Day, wrote the words in the 19th century.

Another entry on ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ notes the ancient history and symbolism of both plants — pagan and Christian — throughout the centuries and posits:

It is most unusual for a carol like the Holly and the Ivy to have survived over the years especially during the stern protestant period of the 17th century. The Holly and the Ivy have always been taken indoors during the winter the hope being that the occupants would survive difficult conditions just like the hardy Holly and the Ivy. The colours of the Holly and Ivy, green and red are traditionally associated with Christmas. The author and composer of the Holly and the Ivy remain unknown.

Whatever the origins and the time of transition in song from pagan to Christian, it is a carol which evokes the Christmas message (and Merry England) in a profound way. This is my favourite verse:

The holly bears a bark
As bitter as any gall;
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
For to redeem us all.
O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing of the choir

Another highlight are the lyrics in the chorus about the rising of the sun and the running of the deer. You can see them in your mind’s eye — a snowy field with that milky winter sky as a backdrop. This is truly an outstanding carol, whether old or new.

One of the most famous English carols of the past two centuries is ‘God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen’. King’s College Cambridge sing it for their televised carol service every year. Below is the video from 2008:

‘God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen’ was one of the ‘new’ carols composed in the late 18th and 19th centuries, creating a modern collection of Christmas hymns with a nod to the England before the Industrial Revolution.

The earliest publication of this particular carol was in 1760 and it was included in a compilation of these modern (at the time) Christmas songs which appeared between 1780 and 1800.

However, another source says that the lyrics are ‘traditional olde English’ and go back to the 15th century. If so, in its earliest incarnation, ‘God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen’ could well have been sung by town watchmen who supplemented their income by carolling at the houses of the local gentry.

The title translates today as ‘may God keep you happy, gentlemen’ with the promise of His Son Jesus Christ. Although there are slight variations, the lyrics are largely consistent. British churches and choirs use the version which Oxford University Press (OUP) published in Carols for Choirs (1961), part of which appears below:

God rest you merry, gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay,
For Jesus Christ our Saviour
Was born upon this day,
To save us all from Satan’s power
When we were gone astray:
O tidings of comfort and joy,
comfort and joy,
O tidings of comfort and joy.

From God our heavenly Father
A blessed angel came,
And unto certain shepherds
Brought tidings of the same,
How that in Bethlehem was born The Son of God by name:
O tidings …

This is my favourite carol, largely because it is written in a minor key which evokes a centuries-old song tradition. Listening to it sung to a complex arrangement for organ makes the lyrics all the more meaningful and personal.

Indeed, this creation of carols which hearkened back to an older era was part of a Victorian movement known as Merry (Merrie) England. It was controversial then as it is now, derided by the Left (as it was by Friedrich Engels) and embraced by traditionalists of whatever political persuasion. It inspired the left-leaning William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement. The Anglo-Catholics of the mid-19th century Oxford Movement were also drawn to it in their quest for greater social equality with a nod towards utopianism.

Merry England is thought to represent the nation between the years 1350 and 1700, so, from the late decades of Catholicism into the English Reformation, and, later, the restoration of the monarchy to the end of William and Mary’s reign. The focus, however, was on English life between the 14th and 16th centuries:

“Merry England” is not a wholly consistent vision but rather a revisited England which Oxford folklorist Roy Judge described as “a world that has never actually existed, a visionary, mythical landscape, where it is difficult to take normal historical bearings.”[1] By contrast, Ronald Hutton‘s study of churchwardens’ accounts[2] places the creation of “Merry England” in the years between 1350 and 1520, with the newly-elaborative annual festive round of the liturgical year, with candles and pageants, processions and games, boy bishops and decorated rood lofts. Hutton discovered that, far from being pagan survivals, many of the activities of popular piety criticised by sixteenth-century reformers were actually creations of the later Middle Ages and that “Merry England” reflects historical aspects of rural English folklore that were lost during industrialization.[3] Favourable perceptions of Merry England reveal a nostalgia for aspects of an earlier society that are missing in modern times.

‘God rest ye merry, gentlemen’ evokes this atmosphere. The carol became so popular that, by 1843, Charles Dickens included it in A Christmas Carol:

…at the first sound of — ‘God bless you, merry gentlemen! May nothing you dismay!’— Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action that the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost.

William B Sandys (pron. ‘Sands’) was an English solicitor (lawyer) who compiled a selection of these ‘new’ yet seemingly ancient carols in Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (London, Richard Beckley, 1833). Emphases mine below:

Among the carols that made their first appearance here are the classics The First Noel, God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, I Saw Three Ships, Hark the Herald Angels Sing. Some have the traditional forms of carols. Others are recognizably composed. In the current atmosphere of “Merry England” that included the revival of Christmas that was signalled by Charles DickensA Christmas Carol (1843), they all quickly developed their present reputations for being sixteenth century or earlier.[2]

A few decades later, Rev. Henry Ramsden Bramley (1833-1917) and Sir John Stainer (1840-1901) published their popular Victorian compilation of carols called Christmas Carols, New and Old. Both men were employed by Magdalen College, Oxford. Bramley was a Fellow and Tutor whilst Stainer was the College’s organist. Some carol books carry Stainer’s name next to ‘God rest ye merry, gentlemen’.

Their songbook became so widely used that the Revd Percy Dearmer — who earned his Bachelor of Arts degree at Christ Church, Oxford — referred to it and the two men in his preface to The Oxford Book of Carols, Oxford University Press, 1928, pp. xvi-xvii:

The second chapter of the revival [of the carol] in the nineteenth century opens in 1871 with the publication of forty-two Christmas Carols New and Old by the Rev. H. R. Bramley, Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and Dr. John Stainer, then organist of the college. The influence of this book was enormous: it placed in the hands of the clergy…a really practicable tool, which came into general use, and is still in use after nearly sixty years. The great service done by this famous collection was that it brought thirteen traditional carols, with their proper music, into general use at once…It is…mainly to Bramley and Stainer that we owe the restoration of the carol

Those in search of a term paper or thesis topic on the Victorian era, Merry England or Christmas carols will find a rich seam of associations with Oxford University‘s literary and musical heritage. Bramley and Stainer were influential in popularising carols which hearkened back to an older England. Dearmer endorsed them. The Anglo-Catholic movement, which also had its origins at Oxford, drew on Merry England’s kinder influences of community and charity. Both extended into the 20th century. J R R Tolkien (pron. ‘Tolkeen’), Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College, Oxford, also borrowed elements from Merry England:

Rather than a celebration of a narrow, anachronistic idealism, Tolkien’s works hinge upon his characters moving beyond that place of idealism into a broader, more complex interaction with the world.

Perhaps that is an idea we can transport from our Christmas experiences into our Christian walk in the year ahead.

Certainly, ‘God rest ye merry, Gentlemen’ carries joyful messages which are perfect for communicating the personal message of the Gospels, the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Compared to ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’ and ‘Carol of the Bells’, ‘O Holy Night’ is a relatively recent addition to our best-loved Christmas carols.

King’s College Choir, Cambridge, sing it here. This beautiful song is regularly part of their televised Christmas concerts, the BBC’s Carols from King’s:

The melody and lyrics are French. In the 19th century, a Catholic priest asked one of his parishoners to write a Christmas poem. Placide Cappeau wrote Cantique de Noël (Christmas Canticle), which translates as follows (more at the link):

Midnight, Christians, it is the solemn hour,
When God as man descended unto us
To erase the stain of original sin
And to end the wrath of His Father.
The entire world thrills with hope
On this night that gives it a Savior.

People kneel down, wait for your deliverance.
Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer,
Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer! …

In 1847, the French composer Adolphe Adam set the lyrics to music, the same melody we hear today. In 1855, a Unitarian minister in the United States, John Sullivan Dwight, translated the French lyrics to English (more at the link):

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Saviour’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
‘Til He appear’d and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

Fall on your knees! O hear the angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born;
O night divine, O night, O night Divine …

Placide Cappeau‘s Wikipedia entry says that he was a secularist in the tradition of the French Revolution. The entry makes no mention of his pastor’s request to write a Christmas poem. If Cappeau were a full secularist or deist it is unlikely he could have written a poem which so accurately presents the theology of man’s sin and Christ’s redeeming sacrifice.

Cappeau’s family were winemakers and coopers (barrel makers). He was supposed to have gone into the family business. Unfortunately, when he was eight years old, he was the victim of a handgun accident. A young playmate of his inadvertently shot him in the hand. Cappeau lost his right hand and his future in the business. To make amends, the father of his young friend paid half of Cappeau’s tuition at school. Cappeau applied himself to his studies and was able to the Collège Royal d’Avignon. He also studied in Nîmes.

After having studied the arts — drawing and literature — he went to law school and obtained his degree in 1831. He never practiced law, however, and ended up becoming a wine merchant. Literature was still his main pursuit. Several of his works were published and among his friends were the most famous writers of the day, such as Alphonse Daudet and Alphonse de Lamartine.

Adolphe Adam, who composed the music to ‘O Holy Night’, also wrote the ballet Giselle. He also wrote several operas.

Adam’s father was also a composer as well as a professor at the Paris Conservatoire. Adam’s mother was the daughter of a physician. Adam became interested in music as a child, despite his father’s discouragement.

Adam studied at the Paris Conservatoire and made his living as an organist. He also wrote music hall songs. He success as a composer enabled him to travel around Europe.

Adam called ‘O Holy Night’ ‘the religious “Marseillaise”‘ [the French national anthem].

John Sullivan Dwight was the son of a doctor. The Dwights were a distinguished New England family. Dwight was ordained as a Unitarian minister after his studies at Harvard Divinity School but never pursued his vocation. Instead, he devoted his life to music and to utopian pursuits.

He lived at a commune, Brook Farm, and served as the director of their school. In 1847, the year that Adam wrote the music to ‘O Holy Night’, Brook Farm dissolved because of financial difficulties. Dwight moved to Boston, where he set up a co-operative house and began publishing a music periodical, Dwight’s Journal of Music.  It was widely respected and featured contributions from other composers and music historians of the day. It was during this time that Dwight translated Cappeau’s poem into English and featured ‘O Holy Night’ in his journal.

‘O Holy Night’ was the second piece of music to have been heard on the radio. Reginald Fessenden, a Canadian inventor, broadcast the first AM radio programme in 1906. After broadcasting a piece by Handel, he played  ‘O Holy Night’ on the violin and sang the final verse:

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name.

Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever,
His power and glory evermore proclaim.
His power and glory evermore proclaim.

Like ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’, the ‘Carol of the Bells’ is also written in a minor key and is derived from an ancient melody:

The chant based on an ostinato four-note pattern within the range of a minor third is thought to be of prehistoric origins and was associated with the coming New Year which in Ukraine before the introduction of Christianity was originally celebrated in April.

Once Christianity became established in the Ukraine, this song was sung months earlier, at the time of the Epiphany and the New Year in the Julian calendar: January 13. Ukranian songs sung for this occasion are known as Schedrivky, named after the Epiphany — Shchedry vechir.

The Ukranian title for ‘Carol of the Bells’ is ‘Shchedryk’, which translates as ‘Bountiful Evening’. The original lyrics describe the flight of a swallow into a family home to announce the plentiful New Year the family would have:

Shchedryk, shchedryk, a shchedrivka [New Year’s carol];
A little swallow flew [into the household]
and started to twitter,
to summon the master:
“Come out, come out, O master [of the household],
look at the sheep pen,
there the ewes are nestling
and the lambkin have been born
Your goods [livestock] are great,
you will have a lot of money, [by selling them]

if not money, then chaff: [from all the grain you will harvest]
you have a dark-eyebrowed [beautiful] wife.”
Shchedryk, shchedryk, a shchedrivka,
A little swallow flew.

The song came to the United States in the 1920s, when the Ukranian National Chorus and Ukranian Republic Capella began touring American concert halls.

Peter Wilhousky, an American composer of Ukranian and Russian descent, heard the Ukranian National Chorus sing this song at Carnegie Hall in 1921. In 1936, he wrote the English lyrics we now know (more at the link):

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 …

This rendition of the carol, sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, is the best I have heard yet. I hope that you enjoy it, too:

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