Caroling at Christmas is a dying tradition, but one I dearly love, and one in which I intend to participate as long as I’m able. At some point every December during the holiday seasons of my childhood in Walnut Ridge, my mother would announce that our family was going to see Mr. and Mrs. Wharton, a former English professor at Williams Baptist College and his wife. Neither my older brother Jay nor I appreciated the interruption; we wanted to keep playing with our Hot Wheels and Barbie dolls. We griped and pouted while my mother assembled a fruit basket. She would gently scold, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
We piled into our red and white Chevrolet Biscayne and drove to the Wharton’s house. They were a retired couple, overjoyed to hear two mischievous children singing “Away in a Manger” out of tune on their doorstep.
Though Jay and I initially complained about going, we would beg to stay at the Wharton’s when it was time to leave. The couple never offered us any toy or snack as compensation during those visits, but we were always glad we had come. Caroling has that effect.
I still love to brighten the night of a shut-in or to encourage a new widow facing her first Christmas alone. For years, as social planner for my Sunday class, I organized a caroling party (that class is probably breathing a sigh of relief that I promoted). We’d go caroling then enjoy a steaming bowl of thick vegetable stew. We balanced this hearty, nutritious meal with an array of fudge, divinity, and baklava.
One year we drove to the home of a widowed church member, Melva Melton, who owned a bulging beagle, “CP,” short for Cutie Pie. After we belted out a few sincere, straggling strains of “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful,” “Deck the Halls,” and “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” (which is much too high for caroling), we closed with “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” Our audience of one (not counting her pet) invited us inside. The noisy dog strained against the leash his mistress had casually draped over the fireplace insert knob. He sounded like he needed a breathing treatment.
CP barked so vehemently that as we entered, several of the carolers backed against the door facing, a few feet beyond the length of his tether. His mistress unclasped the leash and we braced for an attack. To our surprise, he whirled around the room, ecstatic. We learned CP is very social. When Mrs. Melton bragged that he could play the piano, everyone agreed we’d all have to see that to believe it. She offered us sugar cookies on our trek through the kitchen into the living room.
We tried not to dribble crumbs on the carpet while we waited for CP’s performance. He paused three feet behind the piano bench, took a flying leap I would have bet big money against his making, and landed solidly on the bench. He then trounced around the keyboard with his front paws, making a joyful noise. My husband Jeff offered the dog a corn-kernel-sized crumb of cookie and the dog suddenly choked. Everyone stared and held their breath. Many were afraid he would throw up on the carpet; I feared he would spontaneously combust.
I deftly turned Mrs. Melton, in raptures at her Christmas company, toward her china painting display in special shelving, exaggerating my interest in the hopes that she would not witness the explosion of that stuffed dog. I pumped her with questions: “So how do you paint a rose?” Somehow CP managed to overcome his hacking fit. We trooped back into the den, relieved. Caroling can be traumatic.
As we prepared to leave, Mrs. Melton grew teary-eyed, claiming that in part because of our caroling, this Christmas was the best ever. CP nonchalantly slipped out the patio door while she was talking. She didn’t seem worried, so we didn’t either, since all pets have to go out from time to time. When someone mentioned that the pup had escaped, she grew alarmed and cried, “No, no! He can’t get out. He runs off.”
The chase was on.
I would not have believed that stubby chub could move so much like a rocket. He had to have some greyhound genes somewhere in his pedigree; he was two houses down and flying. I decided to loop around, which worked. He came right up to me, wheezing away, his whole back end wagging with joy. I had no idea how to pick him up, but I at least kept him in a holding pattern. Luckily another class member scooped him into his arms and returned CP to his much relieved owner. While climbing into our cars, we discussed how awful it would have been, right after she basked in the joy of her “best Christmas ever,” if Mrs. Melton’s treasured pet had been hit by a car, or experienced a totally probable heart attack. We laughed about CP for quite some time.
One of the main reasons I want to continue caroling is the hope that some Christmas when I’m enfeebled and shut in after dark, a familiar melody will pierce a still and starry night: “Sleep in heavenly peace.” I acknowledge my selfish motivations. However, the pleasure I anticipate as the recipient cannot match the joy I have received through the years on the singing end of a caroling spree. It truly is more blessed to give than to receive.
Illustration by Joan Coffey.