A'caroling We Go

By Diane Schlindwein

September 5, 2008 5 min read


The singing tradition continues to the present day

Diane Schlindwein

Creators News Service

If you're in the holiday spirit and can carry a tune -- or even if you can't -- caroling is a great way to spread Christmas cheer.

Although caroling may not be quite as popular as it once was, many church, school and scout groups regularly make the rounds at senior centers or sing to raise money for the less fortunate. Across the country, some neighborhoods still gather groups for caroling, followed by hot chocolate and cookies or even a potluck dinner.

Caroling has a long, somewhat complicated history. St. Francis of Assisi is credited for introducing Christian carols around the year 1223. Performers in his Italian Nativity plays sang canticles to relay the stories. The songs later became popular in Spain, France, Germany and other European countries. In England, the Puritans eventually banned the carols, but people sang them in secret, passing on the words and tunes from generation to generation.

Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" helped revive an interest in Christmas in both Europe and America. That's why most of carols that we know today were written after 1850.

In the United States, caroling in the streets became most popular in the early 20th century. It was about that time that the St. Louis Christmas Carols Association came to be. "Our history dates back to 1911, when William H. Danforth [the founder of Ralston Purina] and his friends caroled to bring Christmas joy to their neighborhood," Joan Koontz, director of the association, said. "When people unexpectedly gave them money, they donated the funds to the Children's Aid Society and the StLCCA was born."

Today, Donald Danforth III, the great-grandson of William H., is the chairman of the board of the unique association that last year collected just under $45,000 for 50 metro area children's agencies. "When I joined this organization last year I was told we were the only such organization in the United States," Koontz said. "We are often contacted by former St. Louisans who, having moved to other cities, want advice on starting a similar group in their new city."

That's why Koontz says the association's Web site, stlchristmascarols.org, gives pointers to carolers.

The Web site www2.schlolastic.com also offers suggestions for caroling. For example, children as young as five years old can prepare for the outing by creating song book covers, while older kids and parents can pick songs and assemble books.

If you are caroling with little children, consider singing a few really easy songs. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Jingle Bells" and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" are songs toddlers can sing almost as soon as they can talk.

Adults and older children should pick a variety that includes both traditional hymns and more light-hearted choices. You never know when some listener will request a sentimental favorite. The Scholastic Web site suggests holiday tunes, with some that carolers can click and print out song lyrics.

Excited kids need a lot of supervision, so be sure to invite plenty of adults to help move the little singers along. Count heads before you head out and always discuss safety issues like walking together, watching for cars both on the roads and in driveways and staying away from roaming dogs and cats.

If you are caroling at night, you'll need to be even more careful. While carrying real candles might seem more authentic, flashlights, camping lanterns or battery-operated candles are safer choices for any age group. Applying reflective tape to coats and snowsuits is also a good idea. If you have really tiny tots in tow, consider bringing a wagon -- or a sled if it's snowing -- to carry your youngest carolers.

Most groups of friends or neighbors have at least one stand-out singer. Let that person take the lead -- and even sing solo parts if everyone agrees.

No matter who sings, Koontz believes caroling is one of the sweetest aspects of the holidays. "Anytime between Thanksgiving and Christmas is considered caroling season. We had groups singing at the airport Thanksgiving weekend all the way through Christmas Eve.

"One thing we do know -- people who carol as children continue to carol throughout their lives. So we really try to involve school and church groups as a way of ensuring that caroling continues in future generations."

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