My wife Anne loves singing Christmas carols. She used to be first among her coworkers to begin singing them every year until she bowed to peer pressure and agreed to wait till at least after Columbus Day. I learned most of the catalog in grade school and willingly participated in three consecutive Christmas programs, even soloing once on “The First Noel” for an audience of hundreds of parents, none of whom had the clout to offer me a recording contract. Our old Bible study group used to visit group homes and nursing homes, serenade residents with a medley of timeless classics, and bring them baskets of cookies and/or fruit in the spirit of the season.
We love Christmas songs. We have a lot of fun singing them to appreciative crowds. We love being given the opportunity to sing for others as an act of service, an outpouring of faith, and an outlet for our pent-up expressive hearts. We’d join multiple caroling groups if the right offers rolled in. I blame our inactivity on our agent, George Glass.
But Christmas caroling isn’t as easy as it looks, especially if your fellow singers aren’t on the same page. We regret we’ve learned this the hard way. If You, the Viewers at Home, have ever considered singing Christmas songs to others, whether to praise Jesus or to have a good time, we offer you seven handy tips for simplifying your caroling mission, bringing a merry gleam to the eyes of others, creating a pleasant memory, and hopefully remaining on good speaking terms with the rest of the choir by the end of the night.
These, then, are the seven things based on our personal experiences that you and your collaborators absolutely positively must know above all else before you head off to your first performance of the evening:
* Who’s in charge. If it’s just six or eight of you, it’s not so bad and maybe you can just do whatever. The more, the merrier, the harder to coordinate. If more volunteers step forward and your group balloons upwards of two dozen or more, an easygoing agreement between a close-knit circle of friends becomes an unwieldy sports team that can be tougher to wrangle than a flock of chickens on caffeine. Someone needs to step up and become responsible for the event, whether it’s a single coach with a spine of steel or a few confident team players who can make decisions together and communicate clearly to crowds. And those who aren’t in charge need to listen, to pay attention, to abide by the finalized plans, and not to toss in a hundred last-minute suggestions that would require hours of plan rewriting.
Related note: verify what communication channels you’re using with everyone. Use them. Frequently. Directly. Be careful about relying on go-betweens or a game of “telephone”. All our least-best caroling experiences — to say nothing of group experiences in general — received low marks in our book because of communication breakdowns. This should be a basic human interaction thing. Perhaps it was with generations prior to 1900. Good for them.
* Who’s singing. Sometimes it’s just you and your bestest BFFs. Sometimes one of them invites another couple. And then one of them invites a family. And they invite two more, and they invite two more, and so on, and so on, and suddenly you’re surrounded by a happy mob and you can’t concentrate on the lyrics because you’re too busy staring at these strangers and really hoping someone vouched for them and then your social anxiety’s kicking in and all you can think about is finding the nearest dark corner to hide from them all and hopefully your voice will still carry from the shadows and you don’t look too weird or segue into a nervous breakdown or accidentally sing “Silent Night” to the tune of “Joy to the World” because once that’s happened you’ll never live that down or leave the house in December for the rest of your life.
By which I mean, we recommend knowing who your companions will be before you spend those cozy hours together. If you can get to know them, maybe even be introduced to them in advance, I’m told that’s an awesome advantage to have.
* Meeting arrangements. Pick a time. Pick a place. Everyone needs to show up then and there. Decide if you’re eating together before, after, or at all. Decide if someone’s catering or if it’ll be a pitch-in. Get an idea of how long to spend on just the mealtime fellowship before getting down to business. If your net results are a three-hour party for an hour’s worth of caroling, your proportions are off.
Also, once the meeting is all set, tell everyone of the food arrangements or lack thereof in advance. I’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve eaten first before a gathering and found out after we arrived that food was planned all along. Suddenly you’re in a room where everyone’s chowing down and cheery but you, and you look like a stubborn snob who refuses to eat, and you have to patiently explain it’s because you just ate, but you have to modulate your tone so they understand it’s not because you thought their food wouldn’t be good enough for you, and that no one bothered to tell you there would be food, and then everyone’s sad that you got left out, so now you’re sad about being left out and about making them sad. And somehow you have to sing with joy in your voice shortly. Good luck!
* Everyone’s time limits. Some folks thrive on social interaction so deeply that they’ll find every possible excuse to keep the party going for hours and hours and hours if you let them. Some folks don’t have hours and hours and hours to devote to caroling or driving all over town, especially if they have to be up early in the morning. No matter your itinerary or impulses, there needs to be a general cutoff point in mind for the sake of majority harmony, and to keep carolers from yawning a lot or checking their watches and phones constantly during the later stops. It looks tacky.
* Where you’re going. Unless you’ve made arrangements to cram everyone into the same van or bus, all drivers need to know exactly where you’re all going — the precise stops as well as directions to get to and from each one. The more spontaneous stop suggestions you indulge, the tougher it becomes to make sure everyone arrives at the same houses at the same time. That moment when four of your five cars have to sit and wait an extra ten minutes for car #5 because they went to the wrong house is never not excruciatingly awkward.
Directions are especially important for any drivers unfamiliar with the stops. Mapping apps can be a wonderful thing if you have a phone, a viable 4G signal, and all the correct, verified addresses in the first place. Not that I’m bitter about the one time we were told an incorrect address and, while everyone else was together and peppy and celebrating at an assisted living facility near civilization, Anne and I found ourselves missing out and alone on some unlit backwater road through a spooky Sleepy Hollow forest. Nope, not bitter at all.
* If they’re expecting you. Surprise caroling is folly. Just do NOT. Your time will be wasted if the twenty of you arrive and no one’s home. Your awkwardness levels will keep elevating if they’re asleep in their PJs when you knock. Most organized homes and facilities require advance notice for attending groups; some won’t permit them at all. Caroling on a whim in today’s society will get you turned away at the door, or in some neighborhoods questioned, chided, or even shot. Thankfully we’ve not had to stare down any weapons yet.
* What you’re singing. Ever seen your favorite band in concert and gotten bored watching them argue for twenty minutes over what they’re playing tonight? No? Y’know why that is? Because they already have a set list drawn up before they walk onstage. They know what they’re playing, in what order they’re playing it, and how to play it. Some flexibility and light improv can work within reason, but if your show is half-performing and half-decision-making in front of an audience that expects all-performing…well, hopefully they’re patient with you, or have their own favorites that you can accommodate with a smile.
We strongly recommend picking up multiple copies of a single Christmas songbook and giving one to each couple or member. That way everyone can literally get on the same page(s) as you run down the set list, and everyone can known which version of each song you’re using and which verses you’re singing. Some people will sing all thirty-seven verses of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” if you let them, while others may only know the one they learned from the Peanuts gang. And a few carols such as “What Child Is This?” apparently have lyrical variations that hopefully won’t detract from the mood when everyone thinks they’re about to sing the same words and then totally don’t.
Pick a book; ask everyone to politely stick to it; realize you don’t have time for a two-hour all-request extravaganza at every house; and disavow anyone among you who decides to play “Stump the Band” and starts shouting out obscure or complicated titles that aren’t in the songbook. Not everyone can handle “Stille Nacht” or “Christmas in Hollis” without weeks of rehearsal, so don’t put them on the spot.
Bonus tip: “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” as your encore as you hug, shake hands, and head out the door. Fans love it every time.