One day I wondered how old the song "Carol of the Bells" is, so I looked it up. The song was written in 1914 by Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych. It was based on the Ukrainian folk chant called "Shchedryk," which goes back much further. It was not a Christmas song.
The original folk story related in the song was associated with the coming New Year, which, in pre-Christian Ukraine, was celebrated with the coming of spring in April. The original Ukrainian title translates to "the generous one" or is perhaps derived from the Ukrainian word for bountiful (shchedryj), and tells a tale of a swallow flying into a household to proclaim the bountiful year that the family will have.
With the introduction of Christianity to Ukraine and the adoption of the Julian calendar, the celebration of the New Year was moved from April to January, and the holiday with which the chant was originally associated became Malanka (Ukrainian: Щедрий вечір Shchedry vechir), the eve of the Julian New Year (the night of 13–14 January in the Gregorian calendar). The songs sung for this celebration are known as Shchedrivky.
The song was first performed by students at Kiev University in December 1916, but the song lost popularity in Ukraine shortly after the Soviet Union took hold. It was introduced to Western audiences by the Ukrainian National Chorus during its 1919 concert tour of Europe and the Americas, where it premiered in the United States on October 5, 1921 to a sold-out audience at Carnegie Hall. The original work was intended to be sung a cappella by mixed four-voice choir. Two other settings of the composition were also created by Leontovych: one for women's choir (unaccompanied) and another for children's choir with piano accompaniment. These are rarely performed or recorded.
Asked to write English lyrics for a performance on the NBC radio network in 1936, Peter J. Wilhousky, an American musician of Ukrainian descent, centered the English version around bells, because the tune reminded him of hand bells. The original Ukrainian lyrics translate as:
Shchedryk, shchedryk, a shchedrivka [New Year's carol];
A little swallow flew [into the household]
and started to twitter,
to summon the master:
"Come out, come out, O master [of the household],
look at the sheep pen,
there the ewes have yeaned
and the lambkins have been born
Your goods [livestock] are great,
you will have a lot of money, [by selling them].
If not money, then chaff: [from all the grain you will harvest]
you have a dark-eyebrowed [beautiful] wife."
Shchedryk, shchedryk, a shchedrivka,
A little swallow flew.
The performance in the video above was recorded in Kiev in 2011.