The Twelve Mysteries of Christmas, Day 11: Why Do We Sing to Strangers?


On the 11th day of Christmas, my true love queried me: “What’s up with Christmas caroling? I don’t feel the need to entertain perfect strangers in such a fashion at any other time of the year . . . unless I’m in a church choir.”

Dear Soul,

You have a point . . . a potentially tricky one, in fact. After all, when it comes to singing in choirs, wannabe members must first audition before a discerning leader. But when it comes to caroling, all bets are off. Who wants to be labeled a Scrooge for refusing a caroler simply because he or she can’t carry a tune in a bucket? No, better to just hope for the best and sing louder if necessary. Unless you’re the one who can’t carry a tune in a bucket, in which case it is devoutly to be hoped that you’re already aware of it and simply mouth along, as my grandmother once did when she was asked to lead the singing of the national anthem at a convention. Grandma was no fool.

But how did such a custom get its start?

Fact is, the origins of this one are murky, although one old story has it that a little girl by the name of Carol Poles went missing in 1888 London, at the time Jack the Ripper was abroad. Her search party sang Christmas carols as they went from house to house, to ease the minds of residents and show them that the searchers meant no harm. Whether the child was ever found is unclear, but it has been said that Christmas caroling continued from that time on. The tale has, however, been discounted as Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol, written 50 years earlier, mentions people going door to door singing carols.

Another account dates to the marriage of Germany’s Prince Albert to Britain’s Princess Victoria in 1840. After reading in a newspaper that Prince Albert thoroughly enjoyed Christmas carols, peasants started serenading him with them, and caroling has been a tradition ever since. It’s also been traced to Methodists and Lutherans who brought a modified version of the tradition to America, to the ancient Romans, and to the pre-Christian Festival of Yule.

My take: Christmas caroling, whatever its origin, is a beloved custom that has, sadly, largely faded from view. So why not make a resolution to revive it in your neighborhood this year? And if you end up with a tone-deaf member or two, just remind yourself that it’s the holiday spirit that really counts.

Recipe for a Fun Christmas Caroling Session

  • 1 group of hearty voices
  • 1 pre-planned route
  • 1 batch of songs that are short and easy to sing
  • 1 camera to record the festivity (or the looks on homeowner faces)
  • 1 set of refreshments to close the party

Mix all ingredients and serve to a neighborhood near you.


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