Finding their voice, and a gracious way of giving (animation)

The carolers’ first stops left much to be desired. And so they adapted, they improvised. And they sang their way into an arena of good cheer.

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A little cold-night caroling sounded like a swell idea to Murr Brewster and the rest of her madrigal group. And they knew just the right neighborhood to stroll, one with old brick courtyard apartments and stately Victorians, “true Dickens territory.”

But the group’s first two stops left much to be desired – the earnest carolers were met with puzzlement and outright unresponsiveness. And so they adapted, they improvised. And they sang their way into an arena of good cheer.

“To give freely is a fine thing,” writes Murr. “But a gift received, a gift accepted? That’s a gift, too.”

Using animation by Jules Struck, Ms. Brewster’s Home Forum essay ushers in a season of giving in all of its forms.

“Let’s go caroling,” our friend Dorothy said, and it sounded like a swell idea to us. We were in a madrigal group together, so we knew how to harmonize. And what could be more in the spirit of Christmas than offering up the gift of our voices?

It’s not like anyone was going to pay us for it. We weren’t really all that good. Dorothy was a top-notch soprano, sweet and true, and lacking that bellicose vibrato that makes some sopranos so terrifying. 

The rest of us were of a lesser grade. We had one voice for every part, including first and second soprano, and at least you could tell which of us belonged where, because we usually drew inside the lines of our ranges, even if we scribbled a little. We did know our way around a good hey-nonny-nonny and a fa-la-la. But, truth be told, it was probably more fun to sing in the group than to listen to us.

We rounded up a posse and met at Dorothy’s. Hers was a fine neighborhood for caroling: old brick courtyard apartments and stately Victorians, true Dickens territory. There was some discussion concerning how to go about this thing. Caroling is old-fashioned, and we weren’t sure what the rules were. Finally we came up with a plan. We’d go up to the first house we saw and ring the doorbell. We didn’t want to seem disorganized, so we agreed on a carol and the number of verses first.

We rang the doorbell.

“Just a minute,” came a forlorn baritone, followed by shuffling sounds, and doors banging shut, and locks opening, and finally a large, morose, unshaven man appeared at the front door, still working his way into some scuff slippers, and clutching a bathrobe shut with one hand. Oh boy, we thought: the first beneficiary of our cheer! And off we went into “Joy to the World,” in four-part harmony. Our bright holiday mufflers were wrapped tight, our wool caps jaunty as the night chill ruffled the man’s leg hairs. Heaven and nature sang, and sang, and sang, and then the Lord went right on to rule the world with truth and grace. Our victim sagged visibly. In reconstructed memory, he grew shorter and shorter. He was approaching panic as we repeated the sounding joy, and repeated and repeated it.

The poor fellow. What were you supposed to do with carolers? Somewhere in his pre-Depression childhood memory he was certain there had been a protocol that his mother would have known, mulled cider or cookies, but wasn’t just this kind of thing the reason he’d gotten an apartment by himself in the middle of the city, a place where one can be truly alone?

The ghost of gratitude flickered on his face as we appeared to be winding up, but no, we had a plan, and no mutineers. We finished up on “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” complete with the good tidings to him and his kin, which were not strictly necessary, and we bid him adieu.

Well, crumb. We walked down the block and stopped to regroup. Our opening number had left something to be desired. It wasn’t at all clear that our gift of joy had been successfully transmitted. Perhaps there was a way to carol less aggressively. We amended our plans to merely loiter outside the next house and not knock at all. Fingers pulled the slats apart on the venetian blinds and then shut them again. 

We decided to continue down the sidewalk and sing as loud as we could without specifically threatening anybody – one carol after another – which was fine. After all, people had had TV for decades; nobody could be expected to know what to do with authentic carolers. 

Then we came upon one of the old horseshoe-shaped apartment buildings that prevailed in that quarter of town. We walked into the center of the courtyard.

The acoustics were tremendous: We sounded good, and not just Dorothy. We had at it. We let fly.

Relieved of sole responsibility for properly appreciating unsolicited carolers, people opened their windows. Lots of them! First floor, second floor. They leaned out, smiled, and clapped. They gave thumbs-up and joined in. One resident was in high enough spirits to invite us all in for some version of cheer. We declined, but it was nice to be asked. Hey-nonny-nonny and fa-la-la, it was nice.

To give freely is a fine thing. But a gift received, a gift accepted? That’s a gift, too.

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