When you spend a little time looking into the history of the song, you find some really fascinating connections. This song is at once ancient and also very new depending on which part of its history you focus on. Today I want to share a bit of that history with you and go through some of the resources that I use when I teach this fun little folk song. If you have a favorite activity for "Carol of the Bells" leave a comment below and share your idea with me and anyone else who reads this blog post!
To Sing or Not to Sing - Learning the Song
But I'll be honest, with "Carol of the Bells" I don't teach the song with the intent that kiddos will sing, but instead using this as a music listening and music history lesson. I choose to take a non-singing route for a number of reasons. I think it would take a long time for kids to learn the music and/or be able to sing the words in the right order. It feels like the kind of song where you would spend the majority of the lesson hammering in the right pitches and word order and in the process you would lose the fun.
Maybe this is because the song is just a little "too old" for the kids (meaning this is content that might be more appropriate for middle level or above). Perhaps kids would stay invested, but they might just get mentally tired too quickly. I choose to focus on the history and backstory because I know that kids will hear this song for the rest of their life. It's likely that they'll sing some sort of arrangement of the song in middle school or in high school, so why beat it into them now.
Carol of the Birds?
The song as we know it today was originally written down and recorded in the year 1904, though it is much older than that (maybe hundreds of years older). The original lyrics that went along with this song have nothing to do with bells, but more with birds. Ukrainian “Shchedryk,” which means bountiful, has spread all over the world as the hugely popular Christmas tune, Carol of the Bells. However, the original song tells the story of a special bird, a swallow, flying into a household to sing of wealth that will come with the following spring. The original folk song was sung to celebrate the New Year which Ukrainians originally celebrated in April. Want to hear the song sung with the original lyrics? Check out this video!
Schendryk was first formally written down in 1904, but years later the Ukrainian National Chorus made this song famous during its concert tour of Europe and the Americas in the early 1900s. People immediately loved the song and catchy melody and wanted to sing along but couldn't catch the words in their original language. So, an English text was created by Peter Wilhousky in the 1930s, and since then it has been performed and sung during the Christmas season. Wilhousky was the first person to make this song about bells instead of birds.
Talking about The Tune
With Carol of the Bells it is SO EASY to talk about using a tune and adding words that fit your specific purpose because the words we know to the English-language song "Carol of the Bells" really have no connection with the original, ancient Ukranian song. You could have a really fascinating discussion about why the author of the English lyrics, Peter Wilhousky, chose to make this about bells and the Christmas season. Was it because we needed another Christmas song? Was it because he thought the music sounded Christmas-y? Was it because he knew this would be wildly popular as a Christmas carol?
If you want to talk more about tune/lyrics, one folk song you can use to talk about variation is the song "Buffalo Gals." With this song, people would change the name of the song to fit their city, e.g. Cincinnati Gals or Chicago Gals. Wherever the song was sung, that's the name of the city that was added to the song. If you want a holiday song to talk about tune and different lyrics you could explore the song "Greensleeves" or "What Child is This." Just like "Carol of the Bells," the tune for this song is ancient and could be used as an instrumental piece. With "Greensleeves" there is a really fun history behind the lyrics because the sonnet for "Greensleeves" might have been written by Henry VIII. The sacred lyrics for "What Child Is This" came a couple hundred years later but are just as popular now.
Teaching the Vocabulary
This gives me a chance to talk about one of my favorite things, "Onomatopoeia." In this song we sing the words “Ding Dong” quite a few times. Does the bell really say “ding dong?” Does it actually make that sound? Someone made up the words “ding dong” to mimc the sound that the bells really make. That’s called the onomatopoeia because it’s the formation of a word from a sound (like how bacon “sizzles” or a bird might “chirp.” ). Kids LOVE this idea and we can spend a few minutes thinking about other words that do this. Have some boys that are not interested? Make the connection to comic books and the "Pow! Pfoom! Bam!" that they might find there.
If you teach handbells (or even if you don't), this would be an amazing opportunity for connection. Handbell choirs are not nearly as prevalent as they once were and kids don't get a lot of exposure to high-quality, tuned bells like that. The might see bells that the Salvation Army ringers use or tchotchke type bells in stores, but seeing actual bells and bell choirs would probably be new for them. Here's a link to the song being performed by handbells that you could easily show to kids.
If you liked the visuals and resources you saw in the above blog post then check out this Favorite Carol Teacher Kit for the song. I have it available to download as a PowerPoint presentation and also a PDF file. Included in the set are a lot more pages of historical context, vocabulary, background for the song, visuals, several other video/media links, and many other aids for teaching. You can use the PowerPoint for visuals and explanation as you teach or you can post the images out in the hallway as a bulletin board that reinforces the content you teach in class (or you can do both)!