Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Christmas Caroling

carolersDid 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?



5 thoughts on “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Christmas Caroling

  1. Christmas, 1963 on the South Side. A group of us who were in the Wilson High School band went caroling with our instruments. We got the addresses of some of our favorite teachers and stood outside of their homes playing carols. They appreciated it. We had fun and it is a memory that has stayed with me all these years. To quote Tiny Tim, “And may God bless us, every one”. Merry Christmas.

  2. I have fond memories of Christmas and winter growing up in Youngstown and Liberty.Till age 5 we lived on Fairgreen Ave and spent much of the holidays and winter sledding in the ravines in Crandall Park.When we moved to Academy Drive there was good sledding on the ravines behind Sampson rd and Ravine Dr.I have no memories of snowless winters that are now so common.My father would take burlap bags to the slag heaps by any of the mills and put them in the truck for rear wheel traction and to pour on icy spots-we never got stuck.
    Every year the was a caroling service at St. Johns -almost all singing and no sermon.Rev Hank Fukui was an internee and veteran who was a fabulous minister there.
    Downtown was always heavily decorated and I loved going into Strauss’ and Mckelvey’s toy departments.We would go to the Youngstown Club only on New Years to watch the bowl games on the only color tv around altho the color was just shades of green.
    Free trade and greed killed an ideal place to grow up where steelworkers and lawyers and doctors all lived next door to each other.Ill take black rain,open hearth furnace fireworks and full employment over fishing the Mahoning any day….Ford Elsaesser

  3. Our American study-abroad group singing our way through the “old town” streets of Marburg, Germany, where caroling was not customary. Fun to watch shutters in the apartments above the shops open one by one, as folks leaned on windowsills to listen. And how they brightened and sang along when got to “Stille Nacht.” We later heard that Germans reserve that carol for Christmas Eve, but it didn’t seem to matter that night.

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