Monday, December 23, 2013

Keeping Bygone Holiday Traditions Alive

Nikolay Pimonenko painting Carols
I remember Mr. Yung. He lived in one of those dark yet stately Victorian homes lining the street just north of my childhood church. At my age, I thought surely the man must have been in his nineties. The place he still called home had a front entryway that hadn’t been used for years—but the kitchen door that connected him to the outside world was easily accessed by simply going “around the back.”

With Christmastime approaching, someone in the youth group was casting about for an appropriate activity for the young ones to enjoy for that last December meeting.

“Let’s go Christmas caroling,” someone suggested.

The schedule was set and the meeting place designated turned out to be, of all places, Mr. Yung’s home. Of course, with so many young participants in need of transportation, parents were also invited to join the activity.

That was a good thing. Old houses like that can sometimes seem creepy to the kind of people once referred to as “youngsters.”

Back then, I was one of those “youngsters.” And this was one of those times I didn’t mind my mother hanging around.

My mom, predictably, knew exactly where the man’s house was. At the appointed time, she drove right up to the place and down the long rutted dirt passageway alongside the house. We stopped at the end of the building, got out of the car and headed toward the back porch.

Mr. Yung met us halfway. He hardly waited for introductions to be made to plant a fish-cold kiss on my cheek. A wet one. He was quite excited to see the swelling crowd assembling at his place.

You could tell this didn’t happen for him often.

A weak round of caroling for practice in front of our host and home base, and we were off on our musical rounds. We capped off the evening with hot chocolate, back at the old Victorian place.

It has been a long time since that caroling expedition with my youth group. In the interim, I’ve moved to another home and another church. I’ve changed schools, then colleges, then jobs. Somewhere along the way, I found myself in a role on the opposite end of the spectrum when someone spoke up again with the suggestion, “Let’s go caroling.”

Christmas caroling, these many years since, has become quite a different proposition. You can’t just go knocking at an elderly person’s door after dark and expect a warm welcome. These things have got to be planned in advance.

Even the words to what I’d assumed were well-known tunes had to be printed in little booklets to be carried with us. Which meant flashlights had to be remembered (we opted for those phony, battery-operated flickering candles—but hey, they were a convenient plus for the ambience).

What has amazed me, after all these years, is that while these are the same old songs with the same old words, to the changing parade of faces singing them in the candlelight, they are strangely new. The old melodies just aren’t sung much, anymore.

And yet, after it is all over—we’ve visited nearly two dozen shut-ins in homes, care facilities and even hospitals—people never fail to enthusiastically exclaim, “Let’s do this again!”

Once again, we’ve acquainted a new generation with a heart-warming tradition from our parents’ past.

Some things are just worth preserving and passing along.

Above right: "Carols" by eminent Ukrainian realist artist Mykola Pymonenko, circa late nineteenth century; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.


  1. :) My brother plays guitar with a couple guys he knows at several "old folks homes" - I tag along for the ride and am always amazed by how much delight some amateur by soul felt singing can bring folks.

    1. Yes, they are the most appreciative audience. How thoughtful of your brother and his friends to share their time and talent in such places where people are often forgotten.

  2. When we lived in a bigger town this was a wonderful Christmas activity that we did with our children and people from our church. We just sang the old familiar carols that we knew by heart:)

    1. What is alarming to me is that it seems the number of those who can say they sang the carols they knew by heart is dwindling. Very few of the next generation seem to remember--or even know--these traditional songs.

      It's so wonderful to engage in a group activity that is not only enjoyable for the participants but brings joy to others, too. It's my hope that this wonderful tradition of Christmas Caroling gets revived and shared with the up-and-coming generation, too.


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