It almost didn’t happen. When I first got the Christmas caroling bug in 2001, I had no inkling of the obstacles I would have to surmount to make my vision happen. For various reasons, the American custom of Christmas caroling seems to be dying out. For many young people, the practice must seem rather dull and antiquated. How often life’s treasures are concealed in drab clothing! As it turned out, I had to push through two seasons of fizzled-out plans before my first caroling excursion finally came to pass.
In December of 2001, I was working a large Christmas party at the Egan Convention Center in downtown Anchorage. The colossal ballroom was being slowly converted from an empty space to a lavishly set Christmas party. I was one of around 25 servers circulating throughout the room, setting down silver, china and stiff linen napkins folded in red and green fans. Christmas music was being piped in, and there was a huge Christmas tree in the corner packed underneath with gift-wrapped boxes. The mood was festive. Not only were we enjoying the best time of the year for earnings, we were relaxing in the general Christmas spirit.
Doing banquets at Christmastime is a special experience. The guests are always friendlier because of the holiday. During my years at the Egan Center, the Christmas parties were often so large that I got to see co-workers I hadn’t seen for months, with some brand-new faces thrown in for flavor. In 2001, the Egan Center was the largest catering venue in the state, and the managers had to pull out all the stops to find enough servers to staff the events. I remember once serving an event for 3200 people. We had to use both ballrooms, and we fed the guests in two shifts.
I was in particularly fine spirits as we did our work that afternoon. As was our custom, we chatted festively as we went about setting the tables. Suddenly, a random impulse bubbled to the surface. Or perhaps it was God whispering a suggestion to me. I shared it with the servers in my area:
“You know what? We should get a group together and go Christmas caroling this year.”
There was a chorus of agreement. It sounded like a charming idea, and of course it was a timely thought. But I had no idea how difficult it would be to put it into action. After running into numerous scheduling obstacles over the next two weeks, and detecting a general lack of serious interest, I scrapped the project.
The next year was fraught with impediments as well. After coordinating with my roommate, Jeff (who stayed up one evening until 2 a.m. creating Christmas cards to hand out), and making extensive arrangements, the evening came cloaked in -15° weather. None of our participants cared to venture out into the cold. As Jeff and I sat in our apartment waiting in vain for the others to arrive, we listened to the wind howling at the windows. Jack Frost had foiled us. This was the second year in a row that my plans had been scuttled. It was starting to hurt.
I took a different approach the following year. To start with, I began planning the event earlier. I spoke about it with everyone, not only at the Egan Center (where I had concentrated my recruitment efforts twice before) but also at the Sheraton Hotel. I invited people who weren’t part of the catering community, including my mom, who turned out to be my best ally against the inertia that had twice thwarted me. She not only enthusiastically embraced the idea of going caroling; she spent hours with me practicing a dozen of the classic carols and helping me put guitar chords to them. This was time-consuming but rewarding, so much so that it didn’t bother me all that much when I realized later that we could have simply downloaded the carols with guitar chords already put to them.
I was firmly resolved not to let my plans slip through the cracks again. I printed up ten colorful booklets with the music and lyrics to the Christmas carols Mom and I had selected. I also bought a guitar, a pitch pipe and a music stand. This was to be the First Annual Anchorage Banquet Servers’ Christmas Caroling Group, although as mentioned, I had participants who weren’t involved in food service. The lineup included my Sheraton co-workers Mari-Jo Audette, Fay Gavin and JoAnna Littau, along with Dave Thibeau from the Egan Center. We planned to carpool out to the Anchorage Pioneer Home, the oldest and largest retirement home in the city, where many elderly people spend their last days, some without family or friends. Where I had first envisioned a bubbly, door-to-door frolic in the old tradition, this had turned into a more meaningfully focused Christmas outreach to benefit, among others, an untold number of elderly shut-ins. These were people without options, for whom Christmas, rather than being a joyful occasion, was now heavy and wistful, bereft of family and good cheer. It was no insignificant matter for us to be performing for them. As a welcome bonus, we would be a lot warmer than we would have been walking door to door outside.
The day arrived, and our core group arrived at the Sheraton Hotel snow-flecked and smiling at the novelty of it all. I daresay none of us had ever done anything like this before. We quickly piled into two designated vehicles and headed for the Pioneer Home. Once there, we checked in at the front office, where Marilyn (the facility’s Activities Coordinator) quickly appeared and greeted us warmly. She informed us that because of the residents’ ambulatory limitations, we would actually perform for three separate groups on different floors of the building. Marilyn gave us our time slots (which she had worked out to coincide with the residents’ meal times) and wished us luck.
We took the elevator to the third floor, where we installed ourselves at the front of the dining area. As I distributed the caroling booklets and set up my music stand, I was keenly aware that somewhere around 40 people were looking expectantly at us. I had a touch of apprehension. We were really doing this! Because of the way my guitar was made, I couldn’t use a strap on it, so I improvised with a five-gallon pickle bucket I had appropriated from the Sheraton Hotel kitchen. The bucket would support my right foot so that I could comfortably rest my guitar on my leg as I played.
I introduced our group to the residents and invited them to sing along with us. Then we launched into a festive rendition of “O Come All Ye Faithful.” Once we were settled comfortably into the song, I felt a burst of excitement. Here we were, singing Christmas carols for a roomful of complete strangers. What a rush!
While we were singing for the first group, my mom noticed that one of the residents was none other than Lorene Harrison, a well-respected musician who had founded the Anchorage Concert Chorus in 1947 and served as its director for years. She had recently been feted by the ACC on her 100th birthday at a celebration my mother ushered for at the Performing Arts Center. Surely, compared to Mrs. Harrison, we were rank amateurs, but she seemed to thoroughly enjoy the performance.
We continued on to the other floors, covering “Hark the Herald Angels,” “Jingle Bells,” “Away in a Manger,” “Joy to the World,” and “Let it Snow.” We finished each set with an a capella rendition of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” I can’t possibly describe the joy of the experience. On each floor we saw these aged people watching raptly with light in their eyes. Some of them were mouthing the lyrics along with us in their wheelchairs. No doubt our audience members had forgotten a great number of things, but they hadn’t forgotten the words to those old familiar Christmas songs! On our last stop, we noticed that one woman on crutches kept appearing in the back. We finally figured out that she had been following us from floor to floor. We had picked up a groupie!
My favorite part of the evening was after we had played our final set. I put my guitar and the caroling booklets into the case and turned around to discover that the rest of the group were all out among the residents, shaking hands and passing on Christmas wishes. I quickly joined them. I think we shook every hand in the place.
After we finished at the Pioneer Home, we headed over to the Sheraton Hotel to sing some carols with our Banquet Captain, Karen. She hadn’t been able to join us as she’d planned because of a work obligation, so we brought the caroling to the hotel instead. When we got there, Karen and two others on the Banquets crew came out to the lobby to join us. About ten of us stood on the famous jade staircase (photo, right). The lobby was filled with music.
Each member of our group was visibly exhilarated after we finished. I felt a collective sense of gladness. The event had been well worth the trouble. I find it interesting to think about what tenuous footing the excursion had been on. It could easily not have happened at all. It had previously been dashed, twice. Mom hadn’t even planned on going but changed her mind at the last minute. Then afterward, back home, she couldn’t stop talking about what a great time she’d had and how much our audience had enjoyed what we did for them. She was high as a kite. She talked about it for days. It was clear that she had been deeply affected by the experience.
We did it again the next year. In attendance again were my mom, Fay and JoAnna, and we were joined by Jan and Claire Whitefield and Candice McDonald. Jan is an Anchorage physician with an operatic voice that lent a fresh sound to our second performance. Claire, a professional writer, is a very old friend with whom I have spent many enjoyable holiday celebrations. Candice and I worked together as banquet servers at the Egan Center for several years. The last time I saw her, she was working for the Anchorage Convention and Visitors Bureau. I remember that after our second caroling excursion, she said good night by giving me a huge hug, as if to say, “Thank you.”
Circumstances haven’t been ideal for continuing my Christmas caroling outreaches in recent years. While I was with Teen Challenge, we took a large group out into the neighborhood where the center was located, but the event didn’t have the same intensity. Some of the neighbors seemed a bit confused by the whole thing. At one of the houses, we knocked loudly on the door and waited. Through the living room window and the valance, I could see the owner of the house sitting in his recliner while some television show flashed on the screen. He finally came and answered the door. Another homeowner came to the door promptly but seemed nervous and unsure, like she thought it might be a stick-up or something. But the evening ended wonderfully. Our last stop was to the home of the Gorackes, friends of the ministry whom we had called to notify of our intention to come and sing for them. They were delighted and invited us in, all 12 of us, for brownies and hot apple cider. The Gorackes are truly special Christian people. The couple and their two children received every man in our group with warmth and didn’t seem uncomfortable in the least.
Through these and other experiences, Christmas caroling has become a steadfast tradition for me. I think of it every year regardless of how much time has passed since the last excursion. It will be with me forever. I have dreamed of assembling a talented group of musicians and doing outreaches to prisons and convalescent homes. Anything is possible, especially because, I am convinced, God inspired the project to begin with. No doubt God’s ministry has many facets. In a very real sense, I’ve been in the ministry for years. I can’t wait for the next one.