Welcome to The 12 Days of Christmas Songs: an attempt to uncover the forgotten history of some of the most memorable festive tunes. From December 14 through 25, we’ll be tackling one secular song and one holy song each day.
Might “Carol of the Bells” be the most ironic holiday song there is? It purports to be a song about, well, bells, but its most popular versions instead feature human voices or electric guitars. Its lyrics describe silver bells intoning holiday cheer into every home, yet its melody suggests a force both relentless and mirthless. If you want a genuinely merry tune about the sound of ringing signaling the arrival of Christmas, go with “Silver Bells.” If, on the other hand, you’re trying to find fitting music for the scene where Tiny Tim dies of sickness and malnourishment while Scrooge counts his fortune,“Carol of the Bells” is perfect, right down to the low, funereal “Bohm” that concludes most choral versions of the song.
Even without words, “Carol of the Bells” is laden with irony. The epic, Wagnerian Trans-Siberian Orchestra adaptation that’s packed arenas for the last decade takes as its subject a cellist playing Christmas carols in the town square of a devastated Sarajevo. “It was just such a powerful image,” said the TSO founder Paul O’Neill, “a white-haired man silhouetted against the cannon fire, playing timeless melodies to both sides of the conflict amid the rubble and devastation of the city he loves.” (The TSO version pairs the carol with “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” another song that draws inspiration from the dark and haunting elements of the Christmas story, as my colleague Emma Green has written.)
The song that would become “Carol of the Bells” began its life as a Ukrainian folk chant,“Shchedryk,” arranged into a choral composition in the early 20th century by the composer Mykola Leontovych. In the chant, which was originally sung to welcome spring, a swallow flies into a man’s house and tweets about imminent good fortune. (This would at least somewhat explain the frantic, haunting melody, inspired by a swallow’s song.) When another composer, Peter Wilhousky, heard a choir perform “Shchedryk,” he was supposedly reminded of ringing bells, and wrote the English lyrics to “Carol of the Bells” as a result. And here we are.
For all its moody, dark ironies, “Carol of the Bells” is a consistently gorgeous song, eminently worthy of inclusion in the holiday canon, with no end of beautiful variations on its iconic four-note loop. My favorite comes from Wynton Marsalis, who spices up the song’s inherent melancholy into something twistier and more mischievous. It may not have any bells in it at all, but it certainly swings.