The Carol of the Bells: A personal meaning and reflection for this Christmas Season

      My wife is a pianist and during the Christmas season she tries to pick a meaningful piano piece to be played during a church service during this holiday season. This season she was drawn to Carol of the Bells.  It is a joyous and pleasing musical piece, but personally not much was known about this piece of music other then it was beautifully performed by Manhiem Steamroller. 

      So exploring the origins, roots, and lyrics of this carol is very interesting.  It has an orgin that is not rooted in the Nativity or Christianity initially. It was based on a tune from an Ukrainian folks song meant for well wishing and ushering in the spring. The original lyrics had a sparrow flying and proclaiming wealth to come and was known primarily as a New Year’s carol.  The lyrics are as follows:

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 [belongings] 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 wife.”
Shchedryk, shchedryk, a shchedrivka,
A little swallow flew.

       In 1936, Peter Wilhousky composed the lyrics now primarily associated with the tune because the sound reminded him of bells.   The lyrics are as follows:

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,
Oh how they pound, raising the sound,
o’er hill and dale, telling their tale,
Gaily they ring, while people sing
songs of good cheer, Christmas is here,
Merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas,
Merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas,
On on they send, on without end,
their joyful tone to every home
Dong Ding dong ding, dong Bong

The carol had alternate Nativity and Christian based lyrics written in 1947 by Minna Louise Hohman. However, the specific inspiration for the lyrics other then the inspiration of the Holy Spirit is not documented or easily located.   The lyrics are as follows:

Ring, Christmas Bells, Merrily ring,
Tell all the world: Jesus is King!
Loudly proclaim with one accord,
The happy tale; Welcome the Lord
Ring, Christmas Bells, Sound far and near,
The birth day of Jesus is here.
Herald the news To old and young,
Tell it to all, In ev’ry tongue.
Ring, Christmas Bells, Toll loud and long,
Your message sweet, Peel and prolong.
Come, all ye people, Join in the singing,
Repeat the story, Told by the ringing,
` Ring, Christmas bells, Throughout the earth
Tell the glad news, Of Jesus birth.
Loudly proclaim With one accord,
The happy tale; Welcome the Lord. (Repeat from Beginning)

Second Ending:

Ring Christmas bells, Merrily ring.
Tell all the world: Jesus is King.

There also exists a fourth set of lyrics, again Nativity and Christian based written in 1972 by an anonymous author. The lyrics are as follows:

Hark! to the bells. Hark! to the bells,
Telling us all Jesus is King!
Strongly they chime, sound with a rhyme.
Christmas is here! Welcome the King.
Hark to the bells, Hark to the bells.
This is the day, day of the King.
Peal out the news o’er hill and dale
And round the town telling the tale.
Hark! to the bells. Hark! to the bells,
Telling us all Jesus is King.
Come, one and all, happily sing.
Songs of good will, O let them sing!
Ring….silv’ry bells.
Sing…..joyous bells!
Strongly they chime, sound with a rhyme
Christmas is here, welcome the King!
Hark! to the bells. Hark! to the bells,
Telling us all, Jesus is King!
Ring! Ring….Bells.

 So in examining the history of this carol, it clearly has as background that is similar to that of the celebration of Christmas.  It starts with non-christian roots, becomes a western anthem celebrating the coming of Christmas, but with secular lyrics that do not point to Jesus, and finally to lyrics that both proclaim and celebrate the birth of Jesus and His coming as King.  So in looking at the history, it is a story of a redeemed song for those who attend to the true Gospel.  For those whose heart is tuned elsewhere, it draws other meaning.  The two versions of lyrics celebrating the birth and the kinghood of Jesus fits perfectly with Jesus first and second coming.  He first came as servant for the purpose of salvation and when he returns, he returns to restore as King.  Both worthy of celebration. 

       One final note of reflection is what are the function of bells generally in a culture.  Bells are usually rung  in most societies as a preciptant to news or a call to action including war.  I find this tune and the cutural function of bells to be appropriate to this carol, which in my mind is about celebrating the blessings that come from Jesus, but in His sacrifice which allows for redemption and in his second coming which will bring ultimate peace and restoration. 

     So given those thoughts, Carol of the Bells has taken on new significance for me. It is no longer just a piece of pleasant, celebratory music played at Christmas time. The song for me points toward what Jesus has done and will do.  It is a reminder that God is good, and worthy to be praised.  God through Jesus has given us a path to true peace and an answer to our selfishness. It is cause for joyous celebration.   So in closing, take a listen to one arrangement of the tune here: Carol of the Bells.

2 Responses

  1. Are the lyrics by Minna Louise Hohman protected by copyright?

  2. As far as I can tell it is public domain. See wikianswers:

    Since the Ukranian Bell Carol was performed in the US prior to 1923, it should be in the public domain. However, certain arrangements of it may still be protected, for example the common English SATB setting by Peter Wilhousky, or David Foster’s recent “new age” version, among many others. Sound recordings of the song (in any version) would also be protected.

    Read more:

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