Posted by: trevormeers | December 23, 2011

Here We Come A Wassailing!

In the world of Christmas carolers, it's always jolly--and 1880.

On a mid-winter’s evening, Allison declared, “Dad, you should go caroling so you know what it feels like to be snubbed.”

This implied accusation that I go around snubbing those making merry at the holidays is getting not only persistent, but rather tiresome. No caroler has been on the business end of any snubbing by me. Perhaps I’ve dragged my feet getting to the door, but there’s never been a willing snub. And it’s getting a little old to have people keep treating me like Ebenezer Scrooge in the scene where that ne’er-do-well nephew of his named Fred tries to wish him a Merry Christmas despite the old geezer’s grumbling.

I have no qualms with carolers, despite what is, I admit, a checkered past with the overall sport of caroling. Like most church kids, I went along on caroling outings each mid-December. The evening usually included heavy doses of riding around in the dark in a van with a leaky exhaust system and singing off-key in old folks’ homes filled with a mixed aroma that wasn’t exactly fresh evergreens. Because I was prone to carsickness, and because I was always wearing a heavy coat inside residential facilities with the thermostat set to “Boca Raton,” I spent most of my caroling time fighting down nausea.

Decoration or snack? Take a bite and let me know.

This wasn’t helped when the nice old folks offered us snacks, leaving me in that middle ground that I was always running into in the homes of the elderly. It was a little game I liked to call, “Is it edible?” Old people back then always had completely inscrutable items like ribbon candy laying around the house. I defy any 10-year-old to tell whether those hard, multicolor strips in the green bowl on the coffee table are meant to be consumed. And shiny apples in a centerpiece? Baffling. On one visit, I took a bite out of an apple, only to realize I’d picked the fake one. I nestled it back into the bowl with the bit side facing in, then went looking for a place to spit the chunk of wax in my mouth. All that helps explain why I was very slow to take a nibble of the waxy popcorn balls that we’d receive in the cafeterias of the old folks’ homes. You could eat half of one and still wonder whether you were actually supposed to be hanging it on the tree.

But don’t get the impression that there weren’t light moments in the mix. One year, a guy married to a German woman tried to get us all to sing “Silent Night” in German. Nothing, it turns out, makes a merrier Christmas than watching a bunch of Nebraska teenagers contort their faces into various duck-lipped poses as they try to enunciate “ssssh-teeeeel-lllayy nockt” in a way that pleases the elderly audience.

Even in English, caroling has a built-in language barrier. Christmastime compels many Americans to start acting Victorian the way that praying moves some old guys in Baptist churches to talk as if they’ve suddenly turned Elizabethean, whipping out multiple occurrences of “thy,” “thou” and “thine” as they bless the green-bean casserole. Caroling leave us all singing about traditions we’ve never experienced and can’t even explain. Who’s eaten figgy pudding? Who even knows what “wassailing” is or whether it’s legal in most states? And even though maybe 1 in 100 people can explain why we always sing about Good King Wencaslas or why he was eavesdropping on a feast named after some guy named “Stephen,” we all sing about him every December.

Fortunately, several of the old caroling staples are clear enough in meaning. We go caroling because we truly do wish to celebrate the single most important event in world history. And for some of the old folks we’ve sang for over the years, the sight of 20 young people (or at least young-ish) singing praise to the King just might be the brightest spot of Christmas.

When it all comes together, this is how caroling is suspposed to feel.

Now, honestly, would a guy who just wrote that snub carolers at his own front door? This ugly reputation took root a couple of years ago when our next-door neighbors made their annual caroling visit to our door on the Friday before Christmas. Each year on this evening, they come. It’s the only time we see them during the entire year, this one delivery of good cheer apparently being potent enough to carry us through 364 other days. They’re led by a guy who wears a fedora and looks like Andy Bernard on the The Office when he sings.

When they came a couple of years back, I was home alone except for the kid asleep on my lap in the basement. The doorbell rang, but I didn’t feel overly motivated to leave Katie sleeping on the couch and go stand alone in the doorway as 15 near strangers sang to me. So I hid out, as if Jehovah’s Witness were knocking at the door. This didn’t stop the carolers. After several rings of the doorbell, I heard them start singing on the dark porch, as if to prove they were determined to cram a little peace and joy into the stone heart of Neighbor Scrooge, even if he wouldn’t bother to answer the door.

Me, as apparently viewed by my neighbors.

It seems they haven’t forgotten that night. This year, the doorbell rang on a Friday evening as all of us were in the basement. “Go open the door for them,” Teri said, since Katie was sleeping on her lap this time. “You go,” I said. And we all stared at each other in a standoff. The doorbell rang again. Then they started knocking on the door. Guilt finally overpowered my discomfort, and I trotted upstairs, flicked on the porch light and opened the door. Alli hid in her room, peeking through the curtains. So there I stood, one guy being awkwardly serenaded by a chorus.

They opened with “Hark, The Herald Angels Sing,” and I was feeling the cheer settle in. Then they jumped straight to a hasty version of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” and turned and walked back down the driveway. It felt a lot like the “So good to see you!” you give relatives you really can’t stand when you run into them at a family gathering.

I took it as settling the score on the caroling snub front. Maybe we can call it even, especially if I can figure out where to find some wassail and greet them next year with a hot cup—or is it a slice?—for everyone.



  1. Wow, this story sums it up perfectly. I have very similar memories of carolling with the youth group in certain Des Moines neighborhoods. Thanks!

  2. Carolling wasn’t something I looked forward to either…I remember some of the old folks would have tears and I kinda wondered what that was all about…now I’m old enough to understand. One house was dark, but Pastor knew where the lady’s bedroom was so we stood outside her bedroom window and sang from there…the window shade flew up and startled us big time. I enjoyed this blog very much!

  3. Ah yes, Stille Nacht with Dewey! Remember the lady we were singing to was deaf & as I recall you made note that evening of the irony, Nebraskans singing Silent Night in German to a deaf lady.
    I think popcorn balls should be added to the list of most feared things…

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