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Commentary
Michiana Chronicles writers bring portraits of our life and times to the 88.1 WVPE airwaves every Friday at 7:45 am during Morning Edition and over the noon hour at 12:30 pm during Here and Now. Michiana Chronicles was first broadcast in October 2001. Contact the writers through their individual e-mails and thanks for listening!

Christmas Caroling

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As my wife and I were strolling through the neighborhood this week, we noticed a group of people walking toward us along the street. Most were teenagers, and they all seemed to be carrying sheets of paper. I said, “They must be Christmas carolers.” My wife said, “People don’t do that anymore, do they?” But as they were passing us, one of the adults said, “We’re going caroling. Would you like to join us?” He was obviously the youth minister, and it was clear to us now that they had come from the church at the end of the block. The teens all seemed on board for the event on a warm December afternoon. They were with friends – smiling and young. Why not sing? Neither of us was inclined to join them, but it felt sweet to be asked.

At the same time, I felt that my wife was right to have doubted. As soon as I saw them close-up in their informal attire, some carrying cell phones, a chasm opened in my imagination between this group and the caroling troupes of my past. At least three times I participated in caroling as a youngster – once in grade school, once in high school, and the final time in college. The last was sort of a jokey affair that ended in an English Department Christmas party featuring real eggnog made from raw eggs, bourbon, rum, and cognac. On that cold Wisconsin night, we all looked forward to the heat of the common room; but out there in the town, crunching over snow from one Victorian house to another, we probably all fancied ourselves characters from a Charles Dickens novel. I was no good as a caroler. I couldn’t hold a tune, so I piped up only sporadically, striving to hit this note or that. Still, the voice of the carolers was somehow my voice, too; and I happily shared in the warmth of the bodies squeezed in beside me. We all smiled at the householders who popped their heads out the door, surprised. Corny or not, there we were, lined up like angels in the snow.

My favorite caroling event happened when I was seven years old. I was not one of the carolers that time but a recipient. It was strange to hear the doorbell ring in the evening and then to be called to the door by my mother. On our lawn, a choir of strangers burst into song. When you’re a child, sudden attention of this kind from adults and older kids has the power to enrapture. Human voices joined together in singing have a charm beyond any individual message, giving a sense of communal worth to the listener.

The underlying message of belonging is the power of the gospel choir, and maybe it’s the whole point of music. I was pleased that our neighborhood carolers would unplug their lives for a couple of hours and go out and connect with other people at their homes through a kind of gift-giving. But I also know that that kind of physical community is vanishing, especially out here in the white suburbs, where it seems we no longer need one another, and where there seems never to be much cause for social concern. The worst part of it is that we’re forgetting how to give and receive gifts.

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