Did you go Christmas caroling when you were growing up? That is one of my fun memories of growing up in Youngstown. Usually, it was with a church youth group and we would pile into cars and go to the homes of shut-ins and, if we had prepared ahead, to nursing homes, particularly if there were members there. I think this was the first time I saw some of the poor conditions some of our elderly were living in. But people were always glad to see us. Often you could see people mouthing the words or even singing along with us. At some homes, people would hand out Christmas candy or cookies but we didn’t expect this.
We were not choral professionals. We just had a lot of enthusiasm! Often we would sing from Christmas carol booklets from a local insurance agency or funeral home (can’t remember which). Usually, it was just the basics–Hark, the Herald Angels Sing, Silent Night, Joy to the World, O Come All Ye Faithful, O Little Town of Bethlehem. Maybe we would throw in some secular tunes like Jingle Bells and finish by singing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” Afterwards, we often would go back to a home where there was hot chocolate to get ourselves warmed up and lots of good food to eat.
In doing some reading about Christmas caroling, I discovered that this goes back to the practice of wassailing, a word which means “be well, of good health”. The singers would go from house to house, with the hope that in exchange for their songs, they might get a gift in exchange. So getting cookies in exchange for our songs wasn’t so off! In fact, there is a verse in “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” that says, “now bring us some figgie pudding.” This reflects the eventual merger of wassailing with the singing of Christmas carols, which apparently happened in nineteenth century Victorian England.
Wherever this practice came from, it seemed that there was a joy in singing these songs to others that was different from just singing in church or around the Christmas tree. So many of the songs are joyous proclamations–“Joy to the world, the Lord has come,” “Hark, the herald angels say, ‘Glory to the newborn king’ ” and so forth. These are words to be sung to someone, to be shared with someone who needs joyous news.
The last time I remember caroling in Youngstown was in college when a group I was involved in at the university went caroling at Park Vista Retirement Community. Again, we weren’t professional singers, but we gathered in their chapel and had someone to play the piano, and sang the familiar songs and asked people to join us. And they did, and some, as they sang had tears in their eyes. And some of us did as well as we realized how familiar songs of good news and great joy could deeply touch hearts.
And now I understand what was going on more than I did then. There are times when a song can call back so many memories over the course of one’s life, so many Christmases, some good, and some hard. For some, who can’t hold memory of the present very well, these memories are their life. And sometimes, people who can’t remember much of anything else remember these songs and know a kind of joy that memory loss cannot take away. Perhaps, at this point in life, it can be one the best gifts we give.
What are your memories of Christmas caroling?