#06: Rediscovering The Magic of Christmas Through Caroling

Episode Transcript

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For most of my adult life, Christmas has been a terrible holiday. I’ve tried to avoid at almost all costs to me. Christmas was an emotionally fraught, stressful, expensive holiday filled with unfair experts, stations, large financial investments, and almost unbearable social pressure that just made me miserable.

Christmas to me, presented an awful couple of days wedged between Thanksgiving and new year’s day. And that’s part of what made it so annoying Thanksgiving is by far my favorite holiday, because it’s really focused on just being thankful for everything it’s about appreciating, not getting in new year’s day represented when we could finally start fresh and put Christmas behind me and pretend that it never even happened to be honest and I won’t sugar coat this at all.

I have hated the Christmas holiday since my teen years. If you think I sound like an Ebeneezer, Scrooge, shouting bah humbug at the joy and Marymount of everyone else. You’re absolutely right. I sure did, but it wasn’t always that way. As a child, I had many warm, fond memories of the entire Christmas season and all year long, I would anticipate my family’s many traditions that made it very special for all of us kids, our advent calendar on the wall.

The Christmas pageant at church that we always participated in volunteering as a salvation army bell ringer, getting up at five o’clock in the morning to go with dad for our Christmas Eve morning shopping trip, buying presents for the whole family, calling our extended family members to sing our decades long.

Traditional Christmas morning, Christmas morning saved the tree cheer and waking up to find stockings hung above the fireplace, always with a banana sticking out of the top because that’s the way mom did it. But aside from baggage from my teenage years, when the magic of Christmas was lost and I had a bad attitude about almost everything else in life, just like every other teenager, I think my anxiety and fear of Christmas finally came to a head when I became a husband and a father at 20 years old Christmas around that time stopped being a holiday and started becoming a dreaded curse.

Honestly, the whole idea of Christmas just bothered me. I tried to be polite and not criticize the many, many people. I knew speaking in glowing terms about how excited they were for the family, get togethers, the great food, the presence. And I would quietly wilt inside. As I thought of the impending, familial, social and financial obligations.

Honestly, just getting through the year was hard enough adding dinners and get togethers and the obligatory purchasing of presents for my kids and sending out cards to friends and family only added to the stress of my life that I really didn’t need. I’m ashamed to say that for over 12 years, I probably ruined Christmas for my wife and family and maybe even other people in my life that I’m not aware of.

That is until 2017 when something unexpected happened, something so ridiculously simple. I was invited to join a Christmas Caroling group. In 2017, I had already been taking voice lessons for a few years. And with my voice teacher, we mostly focused on operatic repertoire, some oratory art songs, leader, et cetera.

So I had been singing the occasional gig here and there for a few years and Christmas. Caroling was on my list of things. I wanted to try at some point, but I never really had the opportunity. So when one of my friends from opera, Colorado in Denver told me about the opening in his Caroling group. I reviewed the schedule, worked out the logistics, met with the group leaders and signed the contract.

It was official. I was now a member of the, what the Dickens carolers the group had been around for almost 20 years. At that point, I knew this would be a really big challenge, not having ever sung in a Caroling group before and not knowing more than half the songs I was now thrown in with folks who had been singing the same songs with the same singers for five, 10, or even 15 years.

I didn’t have a whole lot of time to prepare just a few weeks. So I spent a few days rifling through a binder, filled with almost a hundred Christmas carols, learning the music as fast as I could. I flipped through the pages of the songbook listened to long to a CD. Yes. We still use CDs and studied the words to the verses of all the songs in a studious manner.

One thing that surprised me is discovering that many of the Christmas songs I’ve sung since childhood have as many as five or even six verses though people generally only sing the first two or three. This is part of what added to the challenge for a lot of the Christmas carols that I knew by heart. I really only knew the first or second verses, so I not only had to learn new songs, but I had to relearn old songs when it was time for us to perform.

I donned a ridiculous looking top hat hopped in my car and drove to the location where I would spend the next few weekends, the 29th street mall in Boulder. I had an absolute blast. It was a fantastic experience. I made some friends. I made some cash. I learned some songs. I learned a lot about Christmas and I learned a lot about music.

I originally decided to pursue the opportunity to become a Christmas. Caroler not specifically because of Christmas or caroling. I joined the Caroling group because I wanted to meet fellow singers. Get more experience with live performance, sharpen my sight, singing skills, and get paid to sing. And that’s exactly what I got, but what I didn’t expect was that in doing so I would learn more about myself, others, and music, and I would rediscover the magic of Christmas all over again.

It’s almost ridiculously simple who knew that spending a few days, walking around a busy shopping center, singing holiday tunes with people I’d never met before could teach me so much about how music is important and how people need holidays. Here are seven things I learned while spreading Christmas, cheer far and wide singing holiday tunes to complete strangers on those frozen weekends.

Back in 2017. Number one, many of the songs I grew up singing in English were actually written in other languages and translated. For example. I think a lot of people know that Oh, Christmas tree actually comes from the German tune. Oh, Tenenbaum however, I found out that many more songs I know by heart are also from other countries and languages.

Oh, Holy night was originally in French and is set to a poem called  bring a torch. Jeanette, Isabella. Is also French. And as originally called all Flambeau,  lo how a Rose air blooming is actually S East Wolf’s and Roman. And I’d always known that silent night was often sung in German, but I didn’t know that Sheila Nacht is the original version and I certainly hadn’t sung it before.

Number two, I’d 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 have purchased tickets and are dressed up in form aware, sitting in assigned seats, but by taking our music to the streets, has it, or 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 people who would buy a $100 ticket to see an opera at the Denver performing arts center. Some are of course, but 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 at all.

They were just going about their business in their daily lives and accidentally encountered music. That’s an entirely different way of experiencing it. And wow. Is it fun? Number three people appreciate live music in different ways and they express their appreciation differently. And that’s okay. Some people who heard us singing in front of the store that they were going into just walked right past us, not making eye contact at all, and probably thinking it would be awkward.

Some walked right past us, but they look over and smile or wave. There were some folks, mostly men I noticed who had stay at a distance hiding behind a building column or appearing around a corner. They were listening and watching, but they didn’t want to be seen. I’m not sure why exactly, but that was fascinating to see.

Number four, everybody you meet on the street is at a very specific place in their lives and you can never know exactly what they’re going through just by looking at them. Some people loved the songs that we sang for sentimental reasons. And they liked the holiday connection. Some people became emotional with a few songs in particular.

Some people would actually cry. I’ve seen audience members cry silently at the conclusion of a tragic opera, but I had never, before seen people spontaneously burst into tears while I’m singing pleasant things, just a few feet in front of them on the sidewalk. Some people would listen and then walk away after a while, without any explanation, some would tell us very specifically what brought them to tears.

Very softly. One woman told me through her tears. If my mother were here, she would have loved this. I don’t know whether she wished her mother could be there with us in Boulder that day or whether she was missing her because they were separated by death either way. That’s okay. Number five. Some people don’t understand how to accept a gift.

I think some people thought we were singing for money and perhaps that’s why they walked by so quickly. We, as a society are so used to musicians, busking on street corners, asking for cash that I think many of us feel guilty, enjoying music without paying up. One young girl actually 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 really know how to react, but just kept singing. By the time we were done, she had already walked away. What should we have done? Give it back to her, share it. It was a very kind gesture, but we weren’t asking for money. Number six music transcends age, national identity and language.

Of course, all musicians already know this, but I got to see this in new ways. We met several people from other countries, some who spoke English, but many who didn’t, some international tourists wanted to pose with us and take photos, but they had to use hand motions to explain what they wanted because they couldn’t speak English.

One woman told us she was from Australia and she came to Boulder every year. At Christmas time and shopped at the mall, finding the Christmas carolers had become part of her holiday experience in America. We don’t have Christmas caroling in Australia. She told us, she mentioned how she had come to the mall a few days before and was disappointed because she couldn’t find us.

So this time she was ecstatic that she caught us in time and felt her holiday in America was now complete. What a thought. This woman flew from literally the opposite side of the planet and had see the Christmas carolers in Boulder on her to-do list. That’s amazing. Number seven, 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 long scrubby hair and a large beard and a backpack who may or may not have been homeless, asked if we could sing that song. That sounds like green slaves. We were happy to oblige. We started singing. What child is this? As he listened, he turned his face away from us, just slightly closed his eyes and let the few remaining rays of the sun warm his face for at least three songs.

He stood there with his eyes shut, visibly, moved by the music standing perfectly still. When we were finished, he very slowly opened his eyes and 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 of the song.

I’ll never know. And that’s okay. But 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 Christmas with others. I think that last point underscores one of the most important ways that singing Christmas music really changed me on the inside.

Performing for others, whether you get paid or not is doing them a service and serving others can help change your attitude and your heart. In the past, I looked at Christmas as a hassle because it’s expensive and because the expectations and the stress and pressure are just so high. But by meeting other people who are in different life stages or have different circumstances or came from other countries, or don’t even speak my language, I was able to serve them and bless them.

I was able to help bring some cheer to them and make their Christmas a special one. And doing that in turn did the same for me. How could I possibly sing songs about joy, peace, Goodwill to men and not be affected by that? I will always be thankful for Christmas caroling, whether I’m performing or whether I’m watching and listening to it.

In my opinion, Christmas caroling reminded me what holidays are all about. Aside from the main message and focus of Christmas, which is Jesus. Of course, Christmas is also a celebration of life. Family, friends, thankfulness. We celebrate Christmas to remind ourselves that life is worth living, that friends and family are worth having, and that it’s worth putting up with the hassle and the financial hardship of the season.

It’s a way of reflecting on the year that has passed and the new year to come. I will forever be thankful to my fellow Christmas carolers and Christmas caroling in general, for helping me to rediscover the magic of Christmas through music. Thanks for listening.

If you liked this episode of Micron (or even if you didn’t), let me know! I’m always open to feedback, including questions, comments, and episode suggestions. Send an email to feedback@https://ronstauffer.com/micron. You can also leave a review on Apple Podcasts here, which would be super-helpful as I try to grow the reach of the show. Thanks!

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