Before there were Christmas carols, there were New Year Carols, which clearly had a magical component: they were blessings sung and thus bestowed upon family, friends and neighbors, just like the New Year's gifts of earlier times.
One of my favorite Christmas carols is the "Ukrainian Carol of the Bells," also known as "Ring Silver Bells," composed by Leontovich and based on an ancient folk song or New Year's carol known as Schedriwka. According to the program notes of the Seattle Men's Chorus 1992 Christmas performance, it was sung on Schedrij Vechir, Epiphany or New Year's Eve, by roving bands of carolers who dressed in costumes and went looking for handouts (like Halloween trick-or-treaters, or wassailers, or the folks that personified the spirits of the dead during this mysterious time between the old year and the new year). The word Schedrij refers to abundance and prosperity. Thus Schedriwka expresses wishes for material blessings in the New Year.
Juilliard organist and choral conductor Paul Stetsenko, who provided me with additional information about the Ukrainian Carol of the Bells, has a lovely a cappella arrangement of The New Year Carol on his website.
Here is a translation of the original Ukrainian text, translated by Olga Zachary of St Nicholas the Wonderworker Ukrainian Catholic Church in Victoria BC and Rev Kenneth Olsen, the pastor of the parish. The (anonymous) writer of the program notes apologizes for the disparaging remarks about women but I read them rather as playful teasing, the sort of banter you indulge in with colleagues or your best friends.
On new year!
The bird of bounty, the swallow,
Arrives this evening
And she begins her sweet singing
Calling out to the master of the house:
Come out, come out, Master of this house,
And look upon your flocks.
See your fat ewes rolling over
And giving birth to healthy lambs.'
This flock of yours is a first-class flock;
It will bring you lots of cash.
Not so your dark-browed wife,
Shell bring no cash.
She's more like chaff,
This woman of dark eyebrows.
Dorothy Gladys Spicer publishes the similar lyrics of a Bulgarian New Years carol in The Book of Festivals:
Happy, happy New Year
Till next year, till eternity,
Corn on the cornstalk,
Grapes in the vineyard,
Yellow grain in the bin,
Red apples in the garden,
Silkworms in the house,
Happiness and health
Until next year.
My other favorite new year carols I first heard sung on an NPR Winter Solstice show by Festival of Light and Song, a female a-cappella musical group. The founder and director of the group said the song was originally sung by young girls.
A New Year Carol
Sing reign of Fair maid
With the gold upon her toe
Open you the west door,
And let the old year go
Sing reign of Fair maid
With the gold upon her chin
Open you the east door,
And let the new year in
For we have brought fresh water
All from the well so clear
To wish you and your company
A joyful happy year.
A slightly different version was published in Come Hither, a collection of verse edited by Walter de la Mare. The author of the lyrics is unknown; it appears to be a traditional folk text. Benjamin Britten put the poem to music in 1936. The following version, arranged with four part harmony by Elena Richmond, was printed in The Beltane Papers, Issue Eight, Samhain 1995. Elena changed the first verse slightly. It originally read:
Here we bring new water
From the well so clear
For to worship God with
This happy new year.
Sing Levy-dew, sing levy-dew,
The water and the wine
The seven bright gold wires
And the bugles that do shine.
Trefor Owen describes the context for this song in Wales. Very early on New Year's Day about three or four o'clock in the morning, groups of boys came round to the houses in the neighborhood, carrying a vessel of cold spring water, freshly drawn, and twigs of box, holly, myrtle, rosemary or other evergreens. They sprinkled the hands and face of anyone they met for a copper or two. In every house, each room was sprinkled with New Year's water and the inmates, who were often still in bed, wished a Happy New Year. For this service and wish they were also gifted with coins. The doors of those houses which were closed to them were sprinkled with the water. The verse was sung during the sprinkling.
In certain parts of Wales this custom is called dwr newy (literally, new water). The exact meaning of the phrase, levy dew is unknown, although there have been attempts to trace it to llef I Dduw (Welsh for cry of God). This seems to be an imposition of a Christian interpretation on a much older custom. Although the fair maid is now equated with the Virgin, Owen thinks it likely that this custom derives from an early well-cult made acceptable to medieval Christianity by its association with the Virgin and perpetuated both by the desire to wish ones neighbor well at the beginning of a new year and by the small monetary payment involved.
Another famous Christmas carol, which is sung to an old Welsh tune, is also properly a New Years Carol:
Deck the hall with boughs of holly Fa la la, etc.
Tis the season to be jolly
Don we now our gay apparel
Troll the ancient Yuletide carol
See the blazing Yule before us
Strike the harp and join the chorus
Follow me in merry measure
While I tell of Yuletide treasure
Fast away the old year passes
Hail the new, ye lads and lasses
Sing we joyous all together
Heedless of the wind and weather.
I am sure there are many more New Years carols of which Im not aware. If you know any, please send me an email. I'll be happy to post New Years carols here on the website if you provide the appropriate credits and references.
Fitzgerald, Waverly and Elena Richmond, "A New Year Carol," The Beltane Papers, Issue Eight, Samhain 1995. For back issues, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Owen, Trefor, Welsh Folk Customs, Llandysul, Dyfed: Gomer Press 1987
Spicer, Dorothy Gladys, The Book of Festivals, The Womans Press 1937