Sometime just before Christmas, maestro Patrick Kavanaugh will gather a few friends to take part in a quietly subversive public rite.
Slipping from house to house under cover of darkness, it is their intention to sing pieces of explicit, doctrinal religious music to family, neighbors and even strangers. They do this every year, even if it is snowing.
Historians refer to this rare activity as “Christmas caroling.”
“People really do love it,” said Kavanaugh, conductor for the Christian Performing Artists Fellowship in Haymarket, Va. “Wherever you go, people hear the singing and they meet you at the door and they’re just glowing. I guess it’s like a form of Americana for some people, like a glimpse of the past.”
Kavanaugh paused for a second and laughed. It was a sad laugh.
“People love it, but I have to admit that I don’t know many others who are still out there doing this. … What are you supposed to do with a carol like ‘Away in a Manger’ if people think you’re celebrating something called the Winter Festival?”
Christmas carols have not vanished.
People still sing them at family reunions, in church services and at safe, private parties. Churches may also send cars full of carolers to nursing homes or jails as a form of community service.
What is fading is the tradition of singers caroling in neighborhoods or shopping districts as part of their Christmas festivities. Of course, it’s hard to imagine carolers mingling with shoppers and singing “Lo, How A Rose ‘Er Blooming” outside Abercrombie & Fitch. Also, the odds are good that the local shopping mall will have adopted a code limiting religious activities on the premises.
Caroling in the black hole of the parking lot is not a lovely option. It’s hard to sing to passing cars.
The result is what Southern Baptist scholar Hugh T. McElrath called “Frosty the Snowman” syndrome, a culture in which people sing secular songs at public celebrations and hymns and carols in worship services.
“What we’ve lost is the whole sense of a complete Christmas season, one that really gets started on Christmas Eve and then lasts for those 12 days and includes all kinds of parties and festivities and, yes, going out caroling,” said McElrath, author of “The History of Our Christian Faith In Hymns.”
“You lose the season and you lose the context for the carols themselves.”
The traditional 12-day Christmas season begins — not ends — on Dec. 25th. Not that long ago, the faithful held parties throughout this season in different homes, with participants singing carols as they walked to the next round of festivities. This would build in intensity through the 12th night, “Three Kings Day” or the Epiphany celebration.
Traditions would vary from church to church and culture to culture, with the carols themselves emerging as true folk songs. Thus, carolers in different places would sing many different songs, with unique carols from Latin America, Africa, Russia and around the globe.
Most carols sung in North America can be traced to England and elsewhere in Europe. Still, it would seem logical that as America grows more diverse, the modern church’s repertoire of Christmas carols would keep growing. If the Latin Grammy Awards are here, can true Spanish Christmas carols be far behind? Apparently not.
Instead, a blanket of sanitized holiday music — spread through media, commerce and a highly mobile population — covers the land. Christmas in Miami sounds the same as Minneapolis and Seattle tends to sound like Savannah. Steel-drum bands play “White Christmas” in the Bahamas.
This trend affects churches as well as shopping malls.
What is at stake are centuries of lovely Christmas music, said McElrath. Carols are supposed to be the songs of the people, binding one generation to the next. Is the very act of going Christmas caroling out of date?
“I guess that it’s hard to go Christmas caroling when it’s hard to even talk about Christmas in public,” he said. “You end up with people sitting in church singing a few Christmas carols one or two days out of the year. That’s lovely, but it’s not what Christmas carols are about.”
NEXT WEEK: What is a Christmas “carol” anyway?