By Eddie Pipkin
We write a lot about new ideas, new technology, and new approaches to leadership and ministry. We love to talk about shaking up the old ways and flipping old habits topsy-turvy, but sometimes the old thing is born anew, profoundly effective as it is rebranded in a new context. What seemed quaint and old-fashioned is suddenly fresh and fitting. Take for example, Christmas Caroling. Sure, it’s an activity as low tech and nostalgic as a Dickensian tale, but it is one hundred percent what you and your congregation need to be planning for now. There was never a tradition more adaptable to our current condition and more destined for direct impact than getting a few trusted friends together and serenading folks with ‘Joy to the World” ten feet from their own front door.
[SKIP TO THE END if you just want to see my revised Christmas carols for a pandemic age!]
I love Christmas caroling. It has always been one of my favorite holiday traditions, and I have many nostalgic memories of singing together under the stars and sharing hot chocolate and cookies at the end. When I was younger, my wife’s family used to shuttle the aunts, uncles, and cousins to the homes of shut-ins that were part of their rural, country church, and I remember being deeply affected by how moved these folks were by people who had taken the time to come to their lonely homes to share hope and cheer. Years later, when we started a pre-youth-group for 4th and 5th graders, we instituted a custom of loading up the church mini-bus and heading out to carol. It has become one of their favorite outings of the year, a night of intergenerational connections and sheer joy.
There is something so simple about a group of people singing together (and it doesn’t have to be particularly good singing – just be sure to have a couple of strong voices carrying the load and providing the leadership). There is something uniquely exultant and delightful about having a crew of revelers show up at your front door, particularly if you have felt isolated, cut off from community, struggling with illness, or otherwise having a bit of a “blue Christmas.” And this year, more than ever, people will be hungry for cheer and connection.
It’s simple, it brings people together (both those who carol and those who are caroled), it requires no infrastructure or budget or complex expertise, and it can be done within the context of safety rules for a moment at which the COVID crisis is reaching epic proportions.
People can travel together in cars in which they are grouped with people already in their exposure bubble; they can meet at a location having driven individually; or they can walk safely distanced through a neighborhood. When they arrive at a house they wish to serenade, they can stay safely distanced from the front door (and from each other) in an outside environment. It’s perfect!
As a longtime amateur caroler, I do have some recommendations for a successful caroling excursion:
- Agree upon a song list and do a little practice before you head out. It’s good to pick Christmas songs that everyone is excited about singing together. It’s good to have a song leader identified (confident in both voice and disposition), and it’s good to practice how you’re going to begin each song (counting it in or letting the leader sing the first half of the line, establishing the key and tempo, or using one of those cool pitch pipes, and it’s good to know how you’ll knock on the door and get started). It’s good to know what key/range works for the group, what songs you do well together and what songs you’re terrible at.
- Print out some words. If you have a figure out what songs you want to do in advance (and you should give this some thought), it will be helpful to print out some words for everybody (with bold type on a white background, because you’ll probably be in the dark – as a major tech upgrade, song lyrics can be on smart phones).
- Limit it to a verse or two of each song. It’s better to have more variety songs with fewer verses of each. Too many verses can drag on forever. Also, it’s fun to ask if the carolees have any requests, and you can take a stab at them (the whole group or a designated soloist, duet, or trio). Also, the order of songs you’ll do for each stop is helpful for the group to know in advance.
- Ask the people in your caroling group ahead of time if they have some stops they’d like to make. Ask your local church leadership if they have some stops they’d like you to make. Put a list together and map it out to make efficient use of your travel time.
- Call people in advance to make sure they are going to be home. You can either tell them what you’re up to – people often like to prepare some cookies or other treats to share, although they may be more reluctant to do that this year with the current COVID crisis – or else just tell them you’d like to “drop something by” and just want to be sure they’ll be home. The temptation is to completely surprise people, but 1) some people really get wigged out by that level of surprise and 2) it’s a huge bummer to show up and nobody be at home (or else hiding and not answering the door because they think you’re a bill collector or salesperson).
- Bring along a fun gift! It doesn’t have to be much – a simple Christmas ornament or small poinsettia – but this adds to the merriment in a way that the carolee can look to that keepsake and think about your well-wishes all season long.
- Encourage your caroling party to dress up a little. Santa hats and scarves, ugly Christmas sweaters, rescued-from-storage Santa suits, and other fun ensembles can add to the fun.
- Don’t be afraid to be spontaneous! You may carol someone who encourages you to go next door and carol the neighbors. Go for it! You might carol the local fire station. Once, we got out of the bus and sang carols to a homeless man – he joined right in! Take advantage of the possibilities that present themselves.
- Post your caroling adventures to social media and challenge others to get their own caroling project going. We could start a thing that could spread like Holy Spirit wildfire and bring a wonderful shot of hope and whimsy to this abnormal Christmas season. So don’t be shy! (It would be an extra special Christmas stocking stuffer to me if you’d me any photos of your caroling project at email@example.com).
- Schedule something fun to top off the “work.” Check out where some great Christmas light viewing is along your route or plan a final stop for hot chocolate or that retail location where they have a “snowfall” every half hour.
- Keep it safe and follow all the coronavirus safety protocols. Here’s one activity you can do without feeling guilty that you are contributing the upswing in the infection rate.
This is also a great way to get friends, neighbors, and co-workers involved in something that’s church-adjacent without being too overtly church-y. It’s a great introductory activity to folks you might want to give an easy entry level ministry invitation to.
I hope you take me up on this challenge or are currently patting yourself on the back because you already have a caroling project in the works.
And now, as promised, here’s my take on a new version of some old classics for 2020. Feel free to share your own ideas in the comments section below:
Christmas Carols for a Pandemic Age:
- “Joy to the World, a Vaccine Has Come” (…let Earth receive her injection.)
- “Rudolph, the Socially Distanced Reindeer” (…whenever we got close said, ‘no.’)
- “We Wish You a Virtual Christmas” (…and a Zoomy new year.)
- “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” (…you should stay home, too.)
- “Baby, It’s COVID Outside” (I really can’t stay … but, baby, it’s COVID outside.)
- “The 12 CDC Recommendations of Christmas” (On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me … an N-95 respirator.)
- “O Little Town of Lockdown Rules” (…how still we see thee lie.)
- “Fauci We Have Heard on High” (…sweetly warning over the airwaves.)
- “O Come All Ye Tested” (…joyful and not infected.)
God bless and good caroling! Send along your other ideas unique to this unusual season.