If you’re lucky, you might have come across a professional caroling group at some point in your life. They’re usually dressed in matching Dickensian garb, smiles permanently affixed and eager to make eye contact with kids aged 1 to 92. I’d encountered only a few leading up to my audition for the Phoenix, Arizona, chapter of the Goode Time Carolers — the same folks who sing Christmas carols in Disneylands across the world — about four summers ago.
At the time, I was fresh off a divorce and ready to throw myself into as many extracurriculars as possible to bolster my social life and take my mind off messy emotions and cumbersome paperwork. Since grade school, when I’d relentlessly beg my mom to rent “Fantasia” or “Amadeus” from the video store, music has always been that escape for me. The fact that I’d be singing joyful music and dressing in 10-pound ornate garb made it that much more enticing.
After dinging and donging my way through an audition, I was hired on the spot. About a week later, the panic began to set in over the fact that I had to learn and memorize an obscene amount of music in such a short period of time. It’s just Christmas music, you say? No, no. I had to memorize nearly 100 tunes with complex harmonies and obscure lyrics, figuring out where my part melted into the others. I had to memorize my starting pitch based off the blown pitch and perfect my ear training to ensure I came in exactly on my note.
What many don’t realize is that carolers live with Christmas music for half the year — in months when there’s zero chance of a Frosty sighting and even minutes before a gig “just for review.” Those tunes played in my car with every commute, in my earbuds as I exercised, in my home while I made dinner.
What many don’t realize is that carolers live with Christmas music for half the year — in months when there’s zero chance of a Frosty sighting.
Oh, you want to catch a ride with me? Well, it may be August but we’re going to listen to “Carol of the Bells” on repeat because there’s a s**t ton of words and that piece requires mighty good breath support. You want to come over for wine in September? Cool, hope you don’t mind that the theme of the night is sleigh bells and Santa! At this point, even my now-boyfriend walks around the house singing Christmas songs most people rarely hear. No, he doesn’t want a 4,000-pound water mammal, but he’ll still sing, “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” because he happens to know the melody and the words. (He also does a semi-on-pitch rendition of the Grinch, in case you were curious.)
Come October, we’re finally ready to come together as a group to do some rehearsing. In our Phoenix chapter, there are 12 of us and we gig together based on individual availability. Despite all the work we’ve put in alone, we still do a good 20 to 30 hours of group rehearsals leading up to December. It’s important to learn each other’s voices, to figure out blending and to find our weak spots.
We collectively share mnemonics and make up silly choreography (so much tapping and pointing and fake mistletoe) to help with memorization. “Quartet Roulette” is a favorite practice technique, as well, where we’re assigned a random quartet and song and are expected to perform it near-flawlessly.
All this practice culminates into a final dress rehearsal, which, in our group’s case, is a source of great stress. We’re all wonderful musicians and aptly prepared, but it’s the one day of the year that our boss shows up to assess us, and he’s a quick-to-critique (though still warm-hearted) perfectionist. I like to think of him as the real-life embodiment of Buddy the Elf — a grown man who genuinely lives and breathes the holiday season. “You bring Christmas magic to people’s lives,” he heart-feelingly reminds us every year.
Despite all the work we’ve put in alone, we still do a good 20 to 30 hours of group rehearsals leading up to December.
On this day and through the season — in addition to making sure I’m musically prepared — I’m contractually obligated to look nothing short of perfect. My bustle must be perfectly fluffed, eyelashes long and fluttery, lips the right shade of red. The men’s bowties must be tied just right (a task that falls on their female counterpart), scarves meticulously draped, top hats tilted just so — like princesses and princes who just stepped out of 1837.
We all stand there and, one by one, get critiqued. It sounds highly dramatic, and it kind of feels that way in the moment, but this is par for the performer course. Soon enough, we’re released into the wild where anything can happen, and it’s nice to know we’ll look and sound damn good.
Speaking of the wild, I’ve got a lot of gigs under my belt at four years into professional caroling. From outlandishly lavish holiday parties in $10 million-dollar Scottsdale mansions and bougie art galleries to smoke-filled, grungy casinos and quiet nursing homes, I’ve sung pretty much everywhere and for everyone.
Depending on where we’re singing, some people stop and linger for a few minutes and then happily go on their way. Some stay for a full half hour, completely rapt. Our expansive, memorized repertoire essentially turns us into a personal holiday jukebox. Listeners will ask us to sing a specific song and in seconds they’re hit with harmonies of their favorite carol. In such instances, it’s not uncommon to watch tears well up in someone’s eyes as that familiar music triggers waves of holiday nostalgia. At times, it’s hard not to tear up with them.
Music is a funny thing; it connects strangers in ways that sometimes surprises even me. Listeners often will say what a song means to them, what’s affecting them this holiday season, who they’re missing or what they’re most looking forward to. In that sense, I sort of feel like an extension of family, a shoulder to cry on, a makeshift quasi-therapist who happens to be wearing an over-the-top fascinator.
It’s also fun to watch kids engage. While some hide behind their parents’ legs, some will get as close as a foot away and stare up completely transfixed, mouths agape and eyes wide until we hit that final chord. Try singing “O Holy Night” — which spans nearly two octaves — while there’s a kid pulling on your bulky velvet skirt.
In fact, our happy quartet has often approached people only to be asked to leave — or worse, to be met with a steely gaze until we depart.
Despite the fun moments, caroling isn’t all mushy-gushy. Often, we’re nothing more than noisy background music as people hurry on their way, frazzled and eager to get their Christmas shopping done or desperate to keep the kids in order while they wait in long lines to see Santa. Passersby with eyes shifted downward, refusing to engage in any of the merriment, is something I’ve grown just as accustomed to. In fact, our happy quartet has often approached people only to be asked to leave — or worse, to be met with a steely gaze until we depart. It stings a little, but there’s always someone around the corner who wants to hear the story of Rudolph, so all’s well.
I often get asked what my favorite caroling gig has been, and it’s honestly too difficult to narrow it down. I’ll never forget what it’s like to sing harmony and keep my balance on a bumpy trolley while the bass makes up words and I try to keep up. Or the time our group was taken onto a houseboat where we sailed over to the host’s rival neighbor to loudly sing “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” She slammed her lakefront door very dramatically. There was also the time we hauled our 10-pound costumes through security to sing at a prison, where we learned that even the toughest-looking inmates enjoy a happy rendition of “Jingle Bells,” too.
I think perhaps my favorite gig to date, though, was last Christmas Eve when we were the surprise gift to a woman’s family. She hid us upstairs and at her cue we strolled into their full living room singing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” We eventually strolled their neighborhood, with the entire family in tow, to deliver the gift of music to neighbors, whose faces were in utter shock when they opened the door. That night, our posse slowly grew in numbers as we moved from house to house, people eager to join in song and fun.
I’d like to think that people will look back on moments like and say, “Remember that time when ... ?” To know that I’ve had a part in creating those treasured memories is what makes all those hours of rehearsal, all those times I’ve battled my fake eyelashes, completely worth it. And if I’m being completely honest, they’re treasured holiday memories for me, too.
Have a compelling first-person story you want to share? Send your story description to firstname.lastname@example.org.