Christmas carols invade my auditory equanimity every single year!
Seriously, wherever I am—grocery store, gas station, restaurant, retail store—I’m bombarded with Christmas songs. And I’m not a huge fan of the genre. Then I get into my head about the poor American Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and Sikhs who have to endure this. Jeez!
There are the Christian versions we all know: “Oh, Holy Night,” “Silent Night,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” I know you know them because they’re ubiquitous.
And then there are the secular ones: “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Walking in a Winter Wonderland.”
Oh, and how about the contemporary versions: “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree,” “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Clause,” “Baby It’s Cold Outside.”
Call me a Grinch, but I say bah, humbug. I hate them all.
I didn’t always hate them. If I put myself in the way back machine, I can remember a time when I actually loved Christmas carols. I have sweet memories of singing them as a kid in my little hometown church and singing them with my children as we decorated our tree. And then, when Robert Downey Jr. sang Joni Mitchell’s “River,” my heart melted.
“Loved me so naughty, made me weak in the knees.” Oh, please, if you haven’t heard it, I urge you to Google it.
Everything has changed now. The commercialization of Christmas has ruined everything. It seems to be all about buying things we don’t need, giving gifts people don’t want—consuming, consuming, consuming. And that includes those dear carols. We have overconsumed them too. All of this heightens the Grinch-ness in me.
But there is one, and only one, carol that can still stop me in my tracks—dig deep into my gut and crack my heart open. I only have to hear “ding-dong, ding-dong,” and I’m transported. Vocal or instrumental, it doesn’t matter. This song conveys majesty and magic.
Anthony Potoczniak, a Rice University anthropology graduate student, says, “The song with a haunting four-note melody was originally a Ukranian folk song written in 1916 by Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovich as a winter well-wishing song.” The original lyrics had nothing to do with Christmas.
When American choir director and arranger Peter Wilhousky heard Leontovich’s choral work, it reminded him of bells, so he wrote new lyrics to convey that imagery for his choir. He copyrighted and published the new lyrics in 1936.
Now called “Carol of the Bells,” the song has become associated with Christmas because of its new lyrics, which include references to silver bells, caroling, and the line “merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas.”
American recordings of the song in English began to surface in the 1940s. It has been recorded in a variety of formats and styles, from standard choir arrangements to improvisational jazz to sultry soul.
Below I’ve included a portion of the lyrics for you to enjoy as you listen along to my favorite version. I hope it moves you, just as it moves me:
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
One seems to hear
Words of good cheer
Filling the air.
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.