For most of my adult life, Christmas has been a terrible holiday I’ve tried to avoid at almost all costs. It wasn’t always that way, however. As a child, I had fond memories of the entire Christmas season, and all year long I would anticipate my family’s traditions that made it very special for us kids. But when I became a husband and a father at a very young age, instead of being a blessing, Christmas became less of a holiday and more of a dreaded curse at the end of several difficult years.
People I knew would drone on in conversation about how special the season was, and I would quietly wilt inside as I thought of the upcoming expensive familial, social, and financial obligations. Just getting through the year was hard enough: adding dinners and get-togethers and the obligatory purchasing of presents for my kids only added stress I didn’t need.
My horrible attitude lasted for nearly ten years, until last year, when something completely unexpected completed changed me: I was invited to join a Christmas Caroling troupe.
I’d been singing at occasional gigs professionally for a few years, and Christmas Caroling was on my list of things I wanted to try, but just hadn’t had the opportunity yet so I jumped at the chance. I reviewed the schedule, worked out the logistics, then signed the contract, and it was official: I was now a member of the “What the Dickens Carolers.” The group has been around for almost 20 years, and many of the singers have been singing these same songs with the same folks for 5, 10, or even 15 years.
I knew this would be a challenge for me, not having ever sung in a Caroling group before, and not knowing half the songs. It was worth it though; I spent a few days rifling through a binder filled with almost 100 Christmas carols, learning the music as fast as I could. Flipping through the pages of the songbook, I listened along and studied the words to the verses of all the songs in a studious manner—something I haven’t done in years, or perhaps ever. I was surprised to discover that many of the Christmas songs I’ve sung since childhood have as many as five verses, though I only knew the first two or three.
When it was time to perform, I donned a ridiculous-looking tophat, hopped in my car and drove to the location I would spend the next few weekends at: the 29th Street Mall in Boulder.
I had an absolute blast caroling in December 2017. It was a fantastic experience, I made some cash on the side, and I learned some things not only about Christmas in general, but I also made some observations about music can affect people in ways I hadn’t seen before.
Here are some of the surprising things I learned while spending a few days walking around a busy shopping center, singing holiday tunes:
- Many of the songs I grew up singing in English were written in other languages and translated. For example, I think everybody knows that “O Christmas Tree” actually comes from the German tune “O Tannenbaum.” However, I found out that many more songs I know by heart are also from other countries and languages. For example, “O Holy Night” was originally in French, set to a poem called “Minuit chrétien.” “Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella,” is also French and is originally called “Un flambeau, Jeanette, Isabelle.” Also, “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” is actually “Es Ist Ein’ Ros’ Entsprungen.” And I’d always known that Silent Night was often sung in German, but I didn’t know “Stille Nacht” is the original version, and I certainly hadn’t sung it before.
- I’ve never really spent time singing “off stage” before, and it was a completely different experience. Normally when I sing, it’s in a formal environment, on a stage, with people who’ve purchased tickets, dressed up in formalwear, sitting in assigned seats. But by taking our music “to the streets,” I saw how this is an entirely different way of sharing the gift of music. The audience we sang for were likely not the types of folks who would buy a $100 ticket to see an Opera at the Denver Performing Arts Center. Some are, of course, not likely not many of them. In this environment, we were performing for people who hadn’t bought a ticket of any kind, and hadn’t expected any performance—they were just going about their business in their daily lives and accidentally encountered music. That’s an entirely different way of experiencing it.
- People appreciate live music in different ways and expresses their appreciation differently. …and that’s okay. Some people just walked right past us, not making eye contact at all, probably thinking it would be awkward. Some walked right past us but would smile or wave. Some people had a harder time: there were some folks—mostly men, I noticed—who would stay at a distance, hiding behind a building column, or peering around a corner. They were listening and watching, but they didn’t want to be seen. I’m not sure why, exactly, but it was fascinating to see.
- Everybody you meet on the street is at a very specific place in their lives, and you can never know what they’re going through by looking at them. Some people loved the songs we sang for sentimental reasons and liked the holiday connection. Some people became emotional: with a few songs, in particular, some people would begin to cry. I’ve seen audience members cry silently at the conclusion of a tragic opera, but I’ve never seen people seemingly spontaneously burst into tears while I’m singing pleasant things just a few feet in front of them. Some people would walk away after a while without explanation. Some would tell us what brought them to tears. Very softly, one woman said through her tears: “If my mother were here… she would have loved this.” I don’t know whether the phrase “if my mother were here” meant she wished her mother happened to be in Boulder that day with her, or whether her mother had passed away, and she was missing her. Either way, that’s okay.
- Some people don’t understand how to accept a gift. I think some people thought were singing for money, and perhaps that’s why some walked by so quickly. We as a society are so used to musicians busking on street corners asking for cash that many of us have become callous and feel guilty enjoying music without paying up. One young girl came up to us in the middle of a song and handed us a dollar in quarters. We were so surprised by the gesture that we didn’t know how to react but kept singing. By the time we were done, she had already walked away. What should we do? Give it back to her? Share it? It was a very kind gesture, but we weren’t asking for money.
- Music transcends age, national identity, and language. Of course, all musicians know this, but I got to see this in new ways. We met several people from other countries; some who spoke English, and many who didn’t. Some international tourists wanted to pose with us and take photos but had to use hand motions to explain due to the language barrier. One woman told us she was from Australia and comes to Boulder every year at Christmas time, and shops at the Mall. Finding the Carolers has become a part of her holiday experience in America. “We don’t have Christmas carols in Australia,” she told us. She mentioned how she had come to the mall a few days before and was sad that she couldn’t find us, and was ecstatic that she caught us in time and felt her holiday in America was now complete. What a thought: a woman came from nearly 10,000 miles away with “seeing Christmas carolers” on her to-do list.
- Sometimes the most touching moments happen with people who don’t use words at all. One weekend, we were wrapping up our three-hour set, and a man with very long, scrubby hair and a large beard and a backpack (who may or may not have been homeless) asked if we could “sing the song that sounded like Greensleeves.” We were happy to oblige. We started singing “What Child is This?” as he turned away from us just slightly, closed his eyes, and let the few remaining rays of sun warm his face. For three songs, he stood with his eyes shut, visibly moved by the music and standing perfectly still. He then very slowly opened his eyes, quietly said “Thank… you… so much,” and walked away.
I have no idea what that man was going through at that stage in his life. He may have been in a season of pain, rejection, suffering, the loss of a loved one, or he may have just been moved by the words. I’ll never know, and that’s okay. He was blessed with the gift of song. …and so was I. I’m thankful I got the opportunity to share music and the joy of the Christmas season with others, but mostly, I got to share it with myself, and it changed me.