Details 15:20 04 Dec 2023

"Shchedryk" or "Carol of the bells"? Why the piece of Ukrainian origin is worthy of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List

In this way, Ukraine can secure its claim on the world-famous melody and protect this unique work. Rubryka found out what had already been done for this, what still needed to be done, and who should do it.

What is the problem?

Mykola Leontovych's Ukrainian "Shchedryk" was reworked in 1936 by Peter J. Wilhousky, an American musician of Ukrainian origin. With a new text, his composition became the world-famous Christmas classic "Carol of the Bells." The world still does not know enough about the real author and the original work.

What is the solution?

Ukraine is making considerable efforts to popularize the history of "Shchedryk." In the spring of 2021, it was announced that preparations were being made to include Leontovych's "Shchedryk" on UNESCO's List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, according to then-director of the Ukrainian Center for Cultural Studies, Iryna Frankel. Cultural and educational campaigns are also taking place at various levels.

What is "Shchedryk"?

"Shchedryk" is an ancient Ukrainian ritual song. It was used to congratulate a homeowner and as a ritual to bring happiness to their house for New Year. Researchers note that Shchedryk was especially popular on the Right Bank of Ukraine, particularly in Podilia and Volyn.

Mykola Leontovych began working on folk melodies in the 1890s when he studied at the Podilsk Theological Seminary. Professor Mykola Popovych suggests that Leontovych found "Shchedryk" when he started collecting musical folklore during his final years at the seminary.

The composer created an original choral composition, "Shchedryk, " based on a folk melody."

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Composer Mykola Leontovych. Illustration from the official Facebook page of the Mykola Leontovych Apartment Museum. 

This path was not easy: Leontovych had been working on the composition since 1901, and the work had five editions. "Shchedryk" was publicly performed for the first time on December 25, 1916, by the student choir of St. Volodymyr Kyiv University. It was the first success of the work, which is now known all over the world.

How did "Shchedryk" become famous abroad?

When the Ukrainian Republican Capella went on a world tour, its conductor Oleksandr Koshyts included "Shchedryk" in the choir's repertoire.

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The Ukrainian Republican Capella in Prague, 1919. Photo from the website of the Central State Archive of Higher Authorities and Administration of Ukraine. 

Ukrainian Republican Capella led by Oleksandr Koshyts traveled abroad as part of a conscious political strategy of Symon Petlyura, head the short-lived Ukrainian People's Republic — to promote the young nation that had newly declared its independence from Russia in 1917. The Capella was subordinated to and financed by the foreign policy and cultural departments of the Ukrainian People's Republic. It was the first state cultural diplomacy project in the history of modern Ukraine, says researcher Tina Peresunko.

Leontovych himself believed that his works were not up to the level of the European scene. In the capital's One Street Museum, the singer of the Ukrainian Republican Capella, Oleksandr Pelenskyi, cites the following memory: "When the Capella was going on a world tour, and some members of the band asked Leontovych to add some of his works to the European repertoire, he said that he would not because his songs are so badly composed that it is impossible to sing them on the stage of Prague or Paris.These songs were directly stolen from him, and they saw the light of day in that way."

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The cover of the publication with a portrait of Mykola Leontovych by Boris Roerich. Illustration from the Facebook page of the One Street Museum.

Over 600 concerts were held in 17 countries over five years. The Capella toured from 1919 to 1924, during which time it performed in Czechoslovakia, Austria, Switzerland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Great Britain, Germany, Poland, Spain, the United States, Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, and Cuba.

On October 5, 1922, the choir performed at New York's Carnegie Hall. 

"'Shchedryk' was the crowning point of our repertoire in all regions for five and a half years," recalled Oleksandr Koshyts.

Only in 1936, the American composer of Ukrainian origin Peter Wilhousky wrote several English texts for the composition "Shchedryk." This English-language version, known as "Carol of the Bells," has become one of the most popular Christmas carols in the world.

What's going on?
The Ministry of Culture and Information Policy is considering potential nomination opportunities

What is the situation with the nomination of "Shchedryk" for inclusion in the UNESCO List? Rubryka asked the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine about this.

Preparing a nomination for UNESCO's international lists is a long, multi-step, and requires significant resources. The process requires identification, documentation, and research of an element of intangible cultural heritage. 

Ukraine's Ministry of Culture and Information Policy (MCIP) is preparing such a dossier to nominate "Shchedryk" to the UNESCO list in consultation with researchers, communities, civil society, cultural figures, and expert,  said Yurii Leshchuk, the ministry's secretary, in a comment to Rubryka. "Such work aims to study the situation related to the traditions that formed the basis of the piece, the degree of their viability and practice, to identify communities that identify themselves with this manifestation of Ukrainian culture."

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Screenshot from the landing page dedicated to "Shchedryk" on the official website of Ukraine Ukraine.ua

What can be done?
According to the MCIP, first of all, "Shchedryk" should be included in the national list

One of the criteria for submission of an element of cultural heritage to international lists is its inclusion in the National List of Elements of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

"As of today, a request for inclusion in the National List of an element related to the work of Mykola Leontovych "Shchedryk" has not been submitted to the MCIP for consideration," says Leshchuk.

Despite the announced preliminary work, none of the communities have sent a submission to the MCIP, and have not initiated the inclusion of the element in the national list or UNESCO lists.

As the ministry explains, such a submission can be prepared by organizations of various forms of ownership, non-governmental organizations, or creative unions in close cooperation with the artistic community.

Therefore, if such documentation arrives, the MCIP will consider it following the procedure established by law.

What does the National Commission of Ukraine for UNESCO say?
"'Shchedryk' as an author's work is not an element of the intangible cultural heritage"

"The National Commission of Ukraine for UNESCO affairs is constantly working on the inclusion of Ukrainian elements in the Representative List of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity," the director of the Department of International Organizations of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, told Rubryka. "The Ukrainian dossier on the work 'Shchedryk,' if it is compiled, will be submitted through the National Commission for UNESCO Affairs in view of the relevant procedures and rules of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Protection of Intangible Cultural Heritage."

However, there is a but. According to Article 2 of the Convention on the Protection of Intangible Cultural Heritage of 2003, works of authorship, such as "Shchedryk" by Leontovych, do not fall under the definition of "intangible cultural heritage." The specified rule must be taken into account when compiling the relevant dossier.

"At the same time, the National Commission for UNESCO is ready to assist in promoting such a nomination to include it in the Representative List of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity," says Skuratovskyi.

In general, as the ministry notes, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs actively uses Mykola Leontovych's "Shchedryk" as a tool of cultural diplomacy.

In any case, one thing is clear: if there is a desire to protect "Shchedryk" at the UNESCO level, the public must be active. With its submission, officials will set the bureaucratic machine in motion.

Interesting facts about "Shchedryk" 

  • In December 1977, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Leontovych, the Leontovych Museum was opened in Tulchyn, in the Vinnytsia region, in the composer's apartment, where he wrote "Shchedryk" and many of his other works.

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In 2019, the institution was significantly digitized as part of the project Revitalization of the Apartment Museum of Leontovych into a museum of the melody of the song 'Shchedryk'".

"When leaving the museum, visitors say: 'Leontovych is our national hero,'" shares Svitlana Lukashenko, head of the Apartment Museum.

  • In 2016, a memorial complex to Leontovich was opened in the village of Markivka in the Vinnytsia region. Here he spent his last years, died and was buried. The complex's opening was dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the first choral performance of "Shchedryk."


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Memorial complex of Mykola Leontovych in Markivka/Photo: www.5.ua

  • In 2018, a sculptural composition dedicated to the melody "Shchedryk" was opened in Tulchyn. The city of Pokrovsk, located in the Donetsk region, received a miniature copy of such a composition.
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Opening of a composition dedicated to "Shchedryk" in Tulchyn/Photo: vinbazar.com

At the same time, Pokrovsk and Tulchyn became sister cities because from 1904 to 1908, Leontovych lived and worked at the Grishine station — now Pokrovsk.

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Opening of the monument to Mykola Leontovych in Pokrovsk, the Donetsk region. The monument's author,Petro Antyp, a sculptor from Horlivka who currently lives in Kyiv, is an Honored Artist of Ukraine. Photo: pokrovsk.city

  • In 2018, a monument to Leontovych was opened in Pokrovsk, the Donetsk region; the first in eastern Ukraine.
  • In 2020, "Shchedryk" sounded in the walls of the Ukrainian parliament, performed by the Ukrainian Republican Capella 'NOW Credo' with the participation of elected officials.
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Copies of posters from the touring choir of Oleksandr Koshyts. Photo: kyivcity.gov.ua

  • In 2021, a Ukrainian record was set in Tulchyn for the simultaneous joint performance of "Shchedryk," with the largest number of performers. More than 3,500 people sang at the same time! Sixty-eight vocal and choral ensembles of the region and service members of the Armed Forces took part in setting the record.
  • In December 2021, in cooperation with partners, Ukraine's foreign ministry launched a large-scale promotion campaign for the multimedia project titled "Shchedryk: celebrating Christmas magic." An interactive landing page was launched on the official website of Ukraine about the history of "Shchedryk," the world tour of the Koshyts capella, facts about why and how "Shchedryk" became a symbol of Christmas in the US, and other interesting facts.
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Screenshot from the landing page dedicated to Shchedryk on the official website of Ukraine.

  • In December 2022, on the occasion of the centenary of the North American premiere of "Shchedryk," the "Notes from Ukraine" concert took place in Carnegie Hall — the most prestigious concert hall in New York, with the participation of choral groups from Ukraine and North America.
  • In December 2022, Ukraine for the first time presented a collection of European posters of Oleksandr Koshyts' choir from the holdings of the Slavic Library of the National Library of the Czech Republic, which contain references to the premiere of "Shchedryk" in Vienna, Paris, Zurich, and other European cities long before the song's appearance in the US.
  • In the spring of 2023, "Shchedryk" sounded in Times Square in New York, performed by Ukrainian military violinist Moisei Bondarenko, a member of the association of artists "Cultural Landing."
  • On May 11, 2023, "Shchedryk" was performed at the Eurovision Song Contest. During the second semi-final, in addition to the contestants' performances, Ukrainian musicians Maria Yaremchuk, Junior Eurovision participant Zlata Dzyunka and rapper OTOY performed a medley of the most famous Ukrainian musical works in a modern arrangement.

"Shchedryk" records

  • There are more than 1,000 variations of the "Shchedryk" melody worldwide — from choral and symphonic to jazz and rock arrangements.
  • In 2016, the National Bank of Ukraine issued two commemorative coins – a ₴5 coin made of nickel silver and a ₴20 coin made of silver – in honor of "Shchedryk."
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The silver coin is decorated with a blue gemstone — cubic zirconium oxide, 2.0 mm in diameter, and a multicolored holographic image. Photo: tvoemisto.tv

  • On December 23, 2022, Ukrposhta introduced the "Shchedryk: Carol of the Bells" postage stamp into circulation, dedicated to the centenary of the premiere at Carnegie Hall in New York. All the characters in the image of the stamp are wearing bells.
  • "After all, the Christmas bell is considered not only a mandatory attribute for carolers but also defeats chaos and sanctifies space," commented Mykolai Kochubei, the author of the image.
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Ukrposhta stamp dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the premiere of "Shchedryk" at Carnegie Hall in New York. Photo: marki-ukr.com.ua

  • In Kamianets-Podilskyi, where Mykola Leontovych once studied, an excursion route was created along the paths of the legend of Shchedryk. Here, "Shchedryk" was learned by a choir, which went on a European tour from here.
  • At the end of 2022, the documentary "'Shchedryk' against the 'Russian world'" premiered. Prosto Production Media co-produced the film with the Ukrainian TV channel Suspilne Culture. The documentary tells about the world tours of the choir of Oleksandr Koshyts during the period of the creation of the National People's Republic of Ukraine.
  • At the beginning of 2023, the feature film "Shchedryk" was released, a historical drama co-produced by Ukraine and Poland. The film tells about three families during World War II. The film ranked in the top three box office receipts among Ukrainian historical dramas for four weeks, earning ₴8.7 million.
  • The American reincarnation of "Shchedryk," "Carol of the Bells," has been  used in popular television shows like "The Simpsons," "South Park," "The Griffins," "The Mentalist," "Saturday Night Live," "The Muppet Show"; and in the films "Harry Potter," "Home Alone," "The Mirror Has Two Faces"; "Strong Nut 2"; "The Addams Family," "Santa Claus," and "The Whisper."

"This dynamic melody is heard everywhere in the US: in stores, restaurants, libraries, on TV screens and ice rinks, from the windows of cars on the street!" wrote Tatyana McCoy, an independent journalist from the US, in early 2022.

She also noted that increasingly "the melody of the Ukrainian 'Shchedryk'" is used in genres far from the original work's lyrical spirituality. She mentions the video game "Batman: Arkham Origins," advertising videos on TV offering chips (NHL channel), Xiidra eye drops (Fox News), pancakes from the IHOP restaurant (Hallmark), and pet food.

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On YouTube, the American version of "Shchedryk" has many millions of views. For example, a video by Pentatonix has 185 million views.

War time "Shchedryk"

On Christmas Eve 2022, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, the Saatchi & Saatchi Ukraine agency, and the non-governmental organization BRAND UKRAINE updated the words of "Shchedryk" and created the carol "Carol for Charity," which was performed by the band Antytila, the choir named after Hryhoriy Veryovka, and children's folklore ensemble Zernyatko. In English, they sing about the realities of the war, the feelings of Ukrainians, and a call to donate to support Ukrainian children.

This project, "Shchedryk" or Carol for Charity, was awarded the Silver Lion award at this year's Cannes Film Festival in the Radio & Audio (Not-for-profit / Charity / Government) category.

"Together we succeeded in reminding the world that the familiar warm melodies for them are of Ukrainian origin, and thereby attract them to help Ukrainians," read the comment of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine.


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