Monday, December 7, 2009

Silent Night

I was thinking on the bus this morning, as I rode back from New Jersey, about the bizarre tradition of Christmas caroling.

Doesn't it seem kind of strange that people once gathered in groups and walked around their neighborhoods singing Christmas songs on one another's front lawns? It's sweet and unbelievable, like Laura Ingalls being happy with a penny in her Christmas stocking, or someone baking a welcoming pie for a new next-door neighbor.

I guess it used to happen somewhere, and thus passed into popular folklore. But I don't think I ever caroled when I was a kid, except at church. I don't remember walking around my own neighborhood and singing. I dread to think how it would have been received -- I suspect some neighbors would have shot at me.

Does caroling still happen anywhere? Are any of my blog readers on the receiving or giving end of neighborhood door-to-door Christmas carols?

My guess is, the predominance of caroling has been grossly exaggerated. It probably was never very popular in most cities and towns, except tiny burgs where everyone knew each other. Otherwise, how would carolers know which houses to skip -- the Jews, the Muslims, the Jehovah's Witnesses and any others who didn't celebrate Christmas? (Or would they have simply sung there anyway, in an admirably secular good-will-towards-man spirit -- in which case one would hope the receiving family didn't mind?)

I read an article a few months ago about the world population, written by a woman in her 70s (as I recall). I've been unable to remember where I read it or who wrote it, but I remember her saying that the world, with all its teeming people, feels different today than it did even when she was a girl. She believes herself lucky to have felt a sense of spaciousness that came with a less-populated planet.

Door-to-door caroling, when it occurred at all, must have taken place in that more spacious time, among small groups of very settled people who lived around each other for years and years. Are there any neighborhoods like that left now?

And if not, do we mind that caroling has waned? (At the risk of sounding Scroogey, I'm not too concerned.)

(Photo: Homeless man with Gusto graffiti, East Village.)


  1. I went caroling a few times in high school, in Ohio. It was part of an extracurricular service organization I was in, and we'd have a holiday party at the faculty advisor's house, then go caroling in his neighborhood afterward.

    I don't remember our advisor going with us, so we were caroling to strangers since none of us lived in that neighborhood. We'd just knock on someone's door, explain we were caroling, and ask if they'd like us to sing some songs. Sometimes they said yes & sometimes they said no, but it was never a hostile thing.

    At the end, we'd ask if they'd like to give money for whatever charity we were collecting for that year, and again, sometimes folks would agree & sometimes they wouldn't. Again, it wasn't a big deal: people typically were more gracious to us than they would be to the usual door-to-door solicitors or salesmen, recognizing we were high school kids trying to have fun while doing a good deed.

    But maybe that's an Ohio/Midwestern thing that wouldn't translate to the Big City. Don't carolers sometimes stand on city street corners collecting money for charity, or does that only happen in old, corny movies?

  2. Oh, you know, I forgot completely about the fundraising aspect of caroling. I think even long ago carolers often sang for their supper (or some similar treat). Hence "give us some figgy pudding." And it's true, I guess carolers could ask to make sure they're not singing somewhere they're not wanted. (My guess is most people would go along with it, just for the fun of it.)

    Thanks for the food for thought!

  3. Oh, and I've never seen carolers in New York City. But maybe they can be found in some of the Christmasey hot spots, like Rockefeller Center, which I typically avoid. (I'm sounding like such a Scrooge today! Geez!)

  4. We citizens of Capitol Hill are serious carolers. Sometimes when I'm out and about right before Christmas, I will encounter 4 or 5 bands of carolers, so it does take place still, even today.

    One year a group of friends and I made up new lyrics to traditional melodies to fit various businesses and families, then walked around singing. At Schneider's, a wine store, they still have a framed copy of my lyrics hanging in their tasting room.


  5. Caroling is still done here...I once read something and cannot remember the source, but it discussed that originally, songs were not part of the Christmas service but were sung outside the church, that St. Francis of Assissi played a role in introducing songs at Christmas to be sung inside...there is also connection to wassaling...

  6. I live in a very old-fashioned neighborhood where caroling still happens. Even Jews join the band of people who wander around singing closer to Christmas. Some of the carols are really beautiful songs. The commercialization of Christmas music makes me sick though!

  7. I never saw carolers, but grew up in an urban area.
    my gr. grandmother used to tell stories of her brothers going "nogging" --they'd visit each house, with a bit of a show and good wishes for the household, and the householder would give them each a shot of alcohol-laced egg nog. Back then, people made homemade nog. the young guys would stagger home high on nog.

  8. Steve, caroling is still a warm tradition that I look forward to every year in my neighborhood in West Hartford, Connecticut. That is between a small town and a city, about 65,000 people in central Connecticut, just a few blocks from the Hartford city limits.

    Several neighbors sing in a church choir, and they round up neighbors, friends and fellow choir members and go around from house to house in the early evening on a Sunday night. They all know the words, most can keep a tune, and some add harmony. The carols are the traditional ones and it makes the night magical, especially if there is some light snow falling.

  9. For three years in high school I played christmas carols with a brass quartet that traveled to area hospitals and such. I don't sing.

  10. Caroling is alive and well in New Jersey. My church (Methodists) has organized a group and I think they going out this weekend. But, when they announced it my first thought was "Really? People still do that?"

    It is a nice idea but if a group came to my door singing I think it would just be uncomfortable. How long do you stand there? Are you supposed to give them something? Do you invite them in? Awkward.

    I think they might be going to nursing homes or hospitals too. Not sure. Captive audiences. :)

  11. caroling still goes on in the greater cleveland area - it's a bit neighborhood dependent - there seems to be a high correlation between caroling and streets that have annual block parties

  12. it still happens in the UK - but more in rural areas I'm sure.

    oh, and in shopping malls!