Saturday, December 3, 2022

Bells? Or Swallow?


Most people in the Western world will easy recognize the melody of the clip above as "Carol of the Bells". It is popular Christmas song. During winter holiday season you can listen it almost as often as "Jingle Bells" or theme from Nutcracker. While music is easy to recognize, with lyrics it is different story: they are not in English. British singer of Georgian  origin Katie Melua performs it together with Women's Gori Choir (Gori is city in Georgia. Just take into consideration that Georgia here is not USA state but country in the Caucasus region).  In which language they are singing it? Georgian? No, it is Ukrainian. Why? Because  it is actually Ukrainian folk  song. Ukrainian composer M. Leontovych made it known to the musical world at the beginning of 20th century. It may come to surprise that English and Ukraine lyrics of this carol have absolutely nothing in common. As proof here is beginning of English text, created by  Peter J. Wilhousky.

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

And here is result of direct translation of the lyrics from Ukrainian, which I borrowed from this Wikipedia post To my best knowledge translation is accurate. 

A little swallow flew into the household
and started to twitter,
to summon the master:
"Come out, come out, O master,
look at the sheep pen,
there the ewes have given birth
and the lambkins have been born
Your goods [livestock] are great,
you will have a lot of money, by selling them.
You have a dark-eyebrowed beautiful wife
If not money, then chaff from all the grain you will harvest
you have a dark-eyebrowed beautiful wife."

As you can see there is no similarity between two texts . Why Wilhousky bringing the song on to American soil have chosen very different wording? I would guess he wanted for coral to succeed, and for that image of ringing bells easy associated with winter holiday and Christmas suited well. And indeed result was achieved.
Attentive reader may find that in the original text there is nothing which remind about Christmas or even New Year. Song starts with verse about swallow, which flew to the household. But wait, how that could be possible on Christmas or New Year Day? Swallow is a migrating bird, it can not survive in Ukraine in December. It will either freeze or starve to death, because of scarcity of insects, its only source of food. These birds usually return from tropics to Ukraine at the beginning of spring. Even more, one can tell that swallow is the symbol of spring in Ukraine. And everything in text tells about spring and future harvest. Why this song is associated with New Year and Christmas? I do not know for sure but here is my guess. Let us take as a starting point information from this source:
Modern calendar has its origin from early Roman times, when March was first month of the year. Later on Julius Caesar introduced new solar based calendar and that's when New Year moved to January 1. But things changed later. Here is direct quotation from the link above:

In medieval Europe, however, the celebrations accompanying the new year were
considered pagan and unchristian like, and in 567 the Council of Tours 
abolished January 1 as the beginning of the year. At various times and 
in various places throughout medieval Christian Europe, the new year was 
celebrated on Dec. 25, the birth of Jesus; March 1; March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation; and Easter.

Most likely lyrics of the song indeed dedicated to New Year was created in Ukraine during times when New Year was celebrated at spring. Later on (in 18th century) celebration of New Year again became legitimate and moved according to calendar to January 1. And together with this move moved the song, Then it became associated with Christmas, which precedes New Year.
That make me think that original text of the song is very old (definitely more then three hundred years).
But anyway disregarding if you find my version credible or not enjoy this beautiful melody with any lyrics in any language.

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