When I was a child, my family went caroling.
Okay, so I wasn’t so much ‘a child’ as I was ‘in high school and college.’ But come on, look how sweet and cozy that sentence looks. ‘When I was a child, my family went caroling.’ A sentence like that is either at the beginning of a Hallmark Channel Christmas movie or the start of the twenty-paragraph memoir you have to desperately scroll through to get to the mashed potato recipe you were promised.
I wasn’t a child the first time we went out, I was a senior in high school. We always had Christmas dinner with our neighbors across the street, and after dinner we always went for a walk. The walk was terrible. I grew up in Massachusetts, and for anyone who has spent extensive time in New England, that’s all I need to say. For everybody else: winter in New England is a frozen, icicle spiked hellscape that starts with the first snow around Thanksgiving and doesn’t end until the snows fully melt in mid-April. I’ve spent most of my life watching people on television shows having full conversations with each other outside in the winter and thinking it was yet another example of Hollywood not understanding winter. Turns out, there are parts of the country where winter is livable. Enjoyable, even. Not full of that wet, hostile cold that just saps whatever will to live you have straight through your frozen nostrils. Walking after dark in the end of December is still the coldest I’ve ever been in my life, and I’ve now lived in Wyoming, Colorado, and central Florida (where nobody is happy until the AC is set to 56).
Anyway, we’d eat dinner in a nice, warm house, and then we’d go on this death march around the neighborhood and could only go back inside once somebody showed the first signs of frostbite, and for years we joked that the only thing that could make it better was forcibly singing at our neighbors and then one year we just finally fucking did it and kept doing for the next five Christmases.
The first year we did it I just remember a whole lot of confusion on the part of our neighbors. I don’t know about other countries – I kind of gathered from Love, Actually England might actually still do this shit? But that movie also taught me your prime minister is hot and charming, so I’m taking lessons from that movie with a whole bucket of salt – but at least in New England caroling isn’t a thing people do anymore. Like I said, it’s fucking cold, and mostly we don’t like our neighbors enough to give them the gift of song. We picked houses where it looked like someone was home, rang the bell, and were greeted by pleasantly confused faces that turned to full on WTF faces once we started scream-singing “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas.”
The first great thing that happened from caroling happened that year, at, like, the second or third house. By the time we finished our song, the looks of confusion had turned to amusement, and just as we were about to leave, the father of the house said one of the most beautiful things any of us had ever heard.
“Hey, you guys want some beers?”
Now, my parents and my neighbors had already brought drinks with them, so they declined. But after there were four or five more offers for drinks from various bemused neighbors, we learned for the next year that we didn’t have to pack our own. Hell, one of our neighbors was only home every other Christmas, and every year they weren’t there we reliably found a six pack pushed into the snow in front of their house. Already, our gift of scream-singing was bringing out the neighborly love.
The next great thing that happened was the collective response from the neighborhood kids. The thing about kids that most people forget because they’re too busy thinking about how ‘precious’ and ‘fragile’ they are, is that they also ‘don’t know shit.’ They’re working off less than a decade of experience and they weren’t even paying attention in the first half. So now, my family had accidentally taught a bunch of dumbass kids that caroling was still a thing that people did, and they were fucking pumped. We found out later from two separate families that we had become a part of their Christmas Eve traditions, and that the kids would get antsy waiting for us to show up and scream-sing our one or two songs (we always stayed extra for the kids because they were the only ones clearly not just humoring us).
Our favorite house, though, was this house in the back of the neighborhood with this long-ass driveway. Every Christmas Eve this family threw a huge party, big enough that there were around fifteen kids present. Obviously we were a surprise the first year, but every year after that we could see all fifteen kids pushed into the living room windows, just waiting for us to show up. They’d spot as we were coming up the driveway, and we couldn’t hear them, but we could see them just losing their tiny minds. They’d go tearing away from the living room window, running through the house to get to the front door, and by then we were close enough to hear them screaming to the adults that the carolers had finally shown up. After a while we were doing a whole mini-concert for them and taking requests.
I guess that’s the part about the caroling that really gets me. We weren’t out there to amuse anybody but ourselves. It was a half-drunken decision, and even if nobody answered their doors or slammed them in our faces we were still going to have our fun. We didn’t mean to, but we ended up being a meaningful part of a bunch of half-strangers holidays.
By the last year we went caroling we knew which houses had people who wanted to hear us sing and which ones were empty or not interested. One little house on the corner, close to the big party house, was usually on our ‘Don’t Bother’ list. But the house had been sold a couple months earlier and this year instead of being dark, the lights were on. We decided to try it. We knocked on the door, a single woman opened up, and we started singing. And let me tell you, we were probably about three lines into whatever jaunty little song we had picked that year when this woman just started crying her damn eyes out. Hard crying. Ugly crying. We stopped singing, confused, but she motioned for us to finish.
When we finished the song she managed to get herself together enough to get out a single sentence.
“It’s been a hard year.”
We stayed for another song, the first and only time we did anything slow: “Silent Night.” While the rest of us moved onto the big party house, my neighbor stayed back to talk to her. Turns out ‘hard year’ was an understatement. Her year had been absolutely dogshit, culminating in a death in her husband’s family leaving her all alone in a new house with nobody she knew on Christmas Eve. And then the neighborhood idiots had shown up at her door to drunkenly scream-sing ‘Frosty the Snowman’ and it was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.
By the next Christmas my parents had moved into their new house in South Carolina and the caroling ended, as these things do. I sometimes think about that first year we didn’t show up, mostly at times when I’m already melancholy. Those kids, all waiting in their windows, and learning that things can end. It was still worth it. It’s not a nice world, mostly, but you can choose to do nice things.
I also sometimes think about that first year in South Carolina, where we all loaded up in my dad’s golf cart with mugs of mulled wine wearing bright-red crab hats for some unknowable reason and drove around their new neighborhood, scream-singing carols at unsuspecting pedestrians without slowing down. That was, uh, less well received.