An Old Carol for a New Year

When the Ukrainian National Chorus performed before a sold-out audience in Carnegie Hall on October 5, 1921, a song known as Shchedryk was particularly well-received. Already popular in other parts of the world, the song had been composed by Ukrainian Mykola Leontovych, a musician commissioned by another choir director, Oleksander Koshyts, to write a song based on Ukrainian folk melodies. To meet his obligation, Leontovych turned to the simple melody and lyrics of an ancient well-wishing song associated with celebrations of the Orthodox New Year (January 14 in the Gregorian calendar).

Eventually, an American choral director named Peter Wilhousky heard Leontovych’s work. Wilhousky, who also enjoyed creating new arrangements of traditional works, was inspired by Shchedryk’s bell-like ostinato to attempt to capture the sound for his choir. After writing new lyrics, then copyrighting and publishing the song in 1936, several choirs under Wilhousky’s direction began performing his work during the Christmas season, introducing it as the “Carol of the Bells.”

Thanks in part to his Czech heritage, Wilhousky was familiar with an old Slavic legend that, at midnight on the evening Jesus was born, bells began spontaneously ringing in his honor. Wilhousky’s ability to capture that echo of ringing bells helped to make “Carol of the Bells” extraordinarily popular, especially in the United States and Canada.

Today, nearly two hundred instrumental and vocal arrangments of the “Carol of the Bells” exist, but neither Leontovych’s Shchedryk nor the folk tunes it drew from mention  bells or Christmas. The song we know as a Christmas carol began life as a Ukrainian New Year’s carol with distinctly pagan roots.

Two primary groups of carols emerged in Ukraine: koliadky — festive, ritual songs sung on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day — and a second group called shchedriky, or New Year’s carols. The shchedriky derive their name from the Ukrainian word shchedryi, meaning bountiful, or generous, and they’re traditionally sung in villages on New Year’s Eve.

Both koliadky and shchedrivky include imagery from nature. One tells of a landowner who is awakened by a swallow and urged to prepare for three guests coming to his house: the sun, the moon, and the rain. The shchedrivka known as Shchedryk tells of a swallow coming to a landowner’s house and inviting him to survey his bountiful flocks and fields.

The koliadky and shchedrivky depict scenes from farm life and express the desire for good harvests, prosperity, good fortune, and health. They are remarkable for their wealth of subject matter and motifs, which vary with the person who is addressed and praised in each carol.
There are carols dedicated to the master of the house, the mistress of the house, the young bachelor, the girl, the daughter-in-law, the son-in-law, and so on.
The carols dedicated to the master deal with farm work: they glorify prosperity, the happiness of a well-off farmer, and his well-being. The songs for the young bachelor depict his strength, courage, and good looks. The carols for girls praise their unmatched beauty, wisdom, deep love, diligence, and respect for parents.
The descriptions of prosperity, beauty, and wisdom are magical incantations intended to secure the described effects.

Leontovych’s Shchedryk perfectly captured the beauty of Ukrainian shchedrivky: the well-wishing tunes were a beloved tradition. Unfortunately, not everyone wished Leontovych well. He became a martyr in the Eastern Orthodox Ukrainian Church after being assassinated in his parents’ home in Markovka on January 25, 1921, by an agent of the Cheka (Soviet Secret Police).

прилeтiла ластiвочка ~ A little swallow flew  (Photo, Susan Scheid)

Victoria Frolova, a Ukrainian native now living in Brussels, recalls:

Visiting my grandparents in their small hamlet near Poltava, I loved walking around on January 13th and smelling the heady aromas in the crisp, wintery air–mlyntsi (crepes), varenyky (boiled dumplings), poppyseed bubliki (bagels), and garlicky holodets (pork in aspic).
As soon as evening falls, groups of boys and girls, with me, a curious city kid, in tow, would go around singing “Shchedryk” and other festive verses. And taking a goat for a walk.
The most intriguing of all Shchedriy Vechir customs is to make visiting rounds with a goat, and not just any goat: a female goat, or “koza.” In many cultures, goats are not considered noble animals, but in Ukrainian folk beliefs, the she-goat is a symbol of fertility, wealth and good fortune. Being visited by koza, a she-goat, on the New Year’s Eve is considered lucky.

Luck, magic, incantation, ritual: there are hints of all four in New Year’s Eve celebrations around the world. While ringing in the New Year with bells is a lovely tradition, singing in the New Year with power-filled incantations has its own appeal. Whether you ring or whether you sing, may the swallows wing their way to you, and may you be granted a happy and prosperous 2021.


Paintings in the video are those of the Russian-Ukrainian artist Vladimir Orlovsky (1842-1914).
Below, the first four lines of the song are written in the Cyrillic script used in Ukraine. A transliteration and full English lyrics follow.
Щедрик щедрик, щедрiвочка,
прилeтiла ластiвочка,
стала собi щебетати,
господаря викликати…

Transliteration:

Shchedryk shchedryk, shchedrivochka,
pryletila lastivochka,
stala sobi shchebetaty,
gospodarya vyklykaty:
“Vyydy, vyydy, gospodaryu,
podyvysya na kosharu,
tam ovechky pokotylys’,
a yagnychky narodylys’.
V tebe tovar ves’ khoroshyy,
budesh’ maty mirku groshey,
V tebe tovar ves’ khoroshyy,
budesh’ maty mirku groshey,
khoch ne groshey, to polova:
v tebe zhinka chornobrova.”
Shchedryk shchedryk, shchedrivochka,
pryletila lastivochka.

English Text:

Shchedryk, shchedryk, shchedrivochka,
A little swallow flew [into the house]
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 are nestling
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 grain you will harvest].
You have a dark-browed [beautiful] wife.”
Shchedryk, shchedryk, shchedrivochka,
A little swallow flew.

Comments always are welcome.

Still Grandma’s Girl

Because they never owned a car and never learned to drive, someone made a special effort to bring Grandma and Grandpa – my father’s parents – to the celebration of my third birthday.

Generally, we traveled to their home for Sunday dinners or holiday celebrations: a thirty-five mile trip to a modest frame house in one of south-central Iowa’s tiny coal-mining communities. Why the routine was broken for this occasion I can’t say, but I cherish the snapshot: my only image of this improbable couple.

Born in Sweden, they traveled to America as strangers on the same ship. After meeting and marrying in Minneapolis, they moved to Iowa, struggled through the Depression, raised six children, and delighted in their grand-children. Then, they were gone.

Loving but taciturn, Grandpa preferred time in his workshop to front porch socializing, although he welcomed the presence of grandchildren, and I joined him as often as I could.

Along one edge of his work bench, chisels and awls marched in formation, arranged by height. Secured to a wall, saws, axes, and an adze gleamed in the faint light, rust-free and ready for work.

A small cubby held tacks, nails, and screws in assorted tins, while close by the unlocked door, a small cigar box contained a scattering of nickels and pennies, as well as packs of cigarettes and matches.

In those days of penny candy, the contents of the cigar box represented a fortune to a child. When I asked — very casually and with studied disinterest — if the money was his, Grandpa said it had been left by friends who’d stopped by for a smoke.

Decades later, I realized the truth. Those ‘friends’ were strangers: men riding the rails; men stopping off where they hoped to find a meal, a day’s work, or perhaps even a cigarette; men who contributed what they could to ensure a smoke for the next man off the rails.

Grandpa, my dad, and the workshop ~ ready for company

While the men busied themselves in the back yard, the women clustered on the front porch, stitching smiling radishes and dancing tomatoes across acres of cotton sacking.

While they worked, I snapped beans, sorted thread, or wandered off to indulge myself in a long-standing family ritual called Checking Out The Pantry. Long and narrow, lit by a single hanging bulb and lined with shelves that climbed higher than any child’s sight, Grandma’s pantry was a marvel.

On the right, jars of home-canned vegetables and fruits, jellies and jams, spiced crabapples, and luscious bread-and-butter pickles shimmered in the dim light.

To the left, Saltines and gingersnaps snuggled up against cupcakes and rolls from the Omar man. Jewel Tea premiums — pie plates, pitchers, and baking dishes — shared shelf space with store-bought cookies and homemade pies. A footed cake plate with an aluminum cover sat next to my favorite kitchen tool — a glass whipping bowl with a combination lid and beaters that belonged to any child patient enough to whip the cream.There were fennel and caraway seeds for limpa bread, tins of sprats, and bags of salt for preserving cod or making ice cream.

The rule for the house was the rule for the pantry. Children were to look, but not touch; we rarely snitched a cookie without asking, and we never picked up a figurine in the living room, or rearranged the colored glass bottles in the kitchen window.

But life with Grandma entailed more than “just looking”. In her mind, any child with time enough to stare into a pantry was a child with time to help out — especially with cleaning.

Dish-washing, dusting, and sweeping were part of our daily routine and didn’t qualify as cleaning. Serious house-cleaning took place according to some mysterious schedule that was impossible to predict. Grandma could clean with the best of them when she put her mind to it, but she often had other, more interesting things on her mind. Still, when the spirit moved and she declared, “Time to Clean!” the process was a wonder to behold.

Spring and autumn were dedicated to window washing, rug-beating, curtain laundering, and porch-painting. With windows thrown open to air the house, neighbors could track her progress by the scents: fresh lavender for the drawers; Spic-N-Span for linoleum; lemon oil for furniture, and vinegar for glass.

In winter, a different kind of cleaning took place. Between Christmas and the first days of the New Year, Grandma set aside dusting and sweeping for a project terrifying in its scope.

While Grandpa fled the house and neighbors gave her a wide berth, Grandma went to work with a zeal that reminded my father of Sherman’s March to the Sea. She inventoried every closet, emptied and rearranged every drawer, looked under every bed and sorted through every piece of paper and clothing in the house, seeking the forgotten, the unused and the unnecessary.

Karin Larsson at the Linen Cupboard - Carl Larsson

She was by nature a saver, frugal and self-sufficient, but she also believed that if we hadn’t used it, looked at it, or remembered it in the past year, we didn’t need it. If we’d forgotten the existence of a toy, someone else should play with it. Unused items could become newly useful in another home. Was there a knick-knack no one enjoyed? It might bring joy to someone else.

Of course her definitions of ‘useful’ and ‘necessary’ were remarkably elastic: akin to William Morris’s dictum that there should be nothing in our homes that we “do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

Boxes of rarely viewed photographs, letters written during the wars, greeting cards from grandchildren, and postcards from friends in the old country always were saved. Worn towels, outgrown clothing, lace trim from old bed linens, and fabric scraps were saved and transformed into quilts or rugs. The enormous roasting pan stayed. Wooden barrels stayed. Buttons and bias tape stayed.

But unclaimed dishes from a year’s worth of church dinners? Costumes for dolls that had been broken or given away? Unread magazines? Outgrown shoes or broken mirrors? Their fate was sealed.

In the end, very little was thrown away and very little more was given away, but Grandma entered each New Year knowing precisely what her house contained, and precisely where to find it.

Looking back, I’m not surprised the family rolled its collective eyes when Grandma began her battle with clutter. But she was determined to maintain her annual ritual and, since I was available during Christmas vacation, she often pressed me into service.

We spent hours working together: shoving and carrying, lifting and rearranging. No matter how tedious the labor, no matter how frustrating the hours I spent working rather than playing, when we were done I felt a bit lighter myself, as though all that excess, all those unnecessary accretions had been a burden pressing down on my own young life.

And that, I suppose, was her point. In the end, the unnecessary and the unwanted turn out to be burdens, and it’s always best to enter the New Year with as few burdens as possible.

As each new year begins, memories of my grandmother and her routine never fail to surface.

For years those memories have caused me to do my own cleaning of closets and drawers – looking things over, sorting them out, making decisions with a certain sense of urgency, as though Grandma herself might suddenly step through the door, ready to judge my efforts.

This year, with so much sorting and digging and dispersing already behind me because of my move, household clutter isn’t an issue. But freed from the need to sort through possessions, I find myself pondering a new possibility: what would happen if we approached life itself as Grandma approached her house? What if her lessons about the unnecessary, the useless, and the unwanted have broader application?

Like most people, I have a lifetime of preconceptions accumulated in the corners of my mind. There are a few prejudices that could stand a good sorting, not to mention a few irrationalities.

Some tendrils of laziness could stand to be pruned, and those small grudges that litter our lives like crumbs on a carpet would sweep up easily enough once we began. If a light film of anger dims the world’s light, it would take almost no effort to wipe it away: only a bit of will, and a little energy.

Standing at the end of one year and looking toward the start of another through my grandmother’s eyes, I already feel lighter. It’s good to clean house.

Comments always are welcome.

 

On Taking Goethe’s Advice

Woman Reading by Candlelight ~ Peter Ilsted, 1908

Burned onto flimsy wooden signs in souvenir shops, quoted to death on Facebook, memed on Instagram, and included in semi-inspirational books of every sort, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s words continue to resonate nearly two hundred years after his death:

One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, and see a fine picture.

Oddly, Goethe himself never spoke or wrote those words as actual advice. The line belongs to one of Goethe’s characters: a theater manager named Serlo  who appears in the novelWilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.  It was Serlo who said:

Men are so inclined to content themselves with what is commonest; the spirit and the senses so easily grow dead to the impressions of the beautiful and perfect; that every one should study, by all methods, to nourish in his mind the faculty of feeling these things.
For no man can bear to be entirely deprived of such enjoyments: it is only because they are not accustomed to the taste of what is excellent that the generality of people take delight in silly and insipid things, provided they be new.
‘For this reason,’ he would add, ‘one ought every day at least to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.’ [Book V, Chapter 1]

Setting aside for a moment the possibility of speaking a few reasonable words — a phrase generally omitted from the quotation — the relevance of Serlo’s assertion is undeniable. In a world awash in silly and insipid things, it becomes ever easier for our spirits to become deadened to the beauty and creativity surrounding us: both that contained in past tradition and that which arises from our present lives.
Continue reading

Ports of Entry

Old Espiritu Santo Bay ~ Indianola, Texas
Always too eager for the future, we
Pick up bad habits of expectancy.
Something is always approaching; every day
“Till then,” we say,
Watching from a bluff the tiny, clear,
Sparkling armada of promises draw near.
How slow they are! And how much time they waste,
Refusing to make haste.
Yet still they leave us holding wretched stalks
Of disappointment, for, though nothing balks
Each big approach, leaning with brasswork prinked,
Each rope distinct,
Flagged, and the figurehead with golden tits
Arching our way, it never anchors; it’s
No sooner present than it turns to past.
Right to the last
We think each one will heave to and unload
All good into our lives, all we are owed
For waiting so devoutly and so long.
But we are wrong:
Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
No waters breed or break.
                      ― Philip Larkin,  “Next, Please” 


The Poetry Foundation provides more information on the poet Philip Larkin.   A new article about him and a review of a new biography are available here.  Comments are welcome, always.

Fading Phrases, Rising Words

The sky clears, a rising wind from the north sending a fog of celebration out to sea.  The moon herself rides high and fast between the scudding clouds.  This moon called Blue, not blue at all but white, whiter than any snow, shines brilliant and harsh, lighting the transition between old and new as one year gives way to the next.

Standing solitary and moonlit in these ephemeral hours, tangled in this fragile web of no-longer and not-yet, it’s possible to glimpse tokens of a truth hidden to hordes of thoughtless revelers in the street: this is the way of life. What has been passes away into that which was, even as the yet-to-be stirs toward vitality. Armies rise and nations fall. Children squall into existence while parents sigh into death. In the farthest reaches of the galaxies, stars explode with pulsing light while on our own shy, spinning globe rotting leaves and the stench of mud evoke a season’s final turn. Continue reading