It’s that time of year again—a season filled with joy, wonder, hope… and for musicians, raw terror.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Like most people I absolutely love all the joy, wonder and hope. I love the closeness of family, the laughs of sharing memories, and finding that perfect present for my sweetie. And I love sense of religious joy that pervades the season, as we seem more willing to let Light into our lives.
But I’m also a musician and I know the challenges December can bring. The accumulated run of concerts, worship services, pageants, and other performances can leave you feeling more burned out than a year-old yule log. Come Christmas Day I’m usually hiding under my bed… with a bottle of tequila.
The good/bad dichotomy is amplified when you are a professional caroler… as I was in my younger days.
In terms of the good, you personally bring the holiday spirit to people. For example, when we were caroling through the airport, travelers would always brighten when we passed by, forgetting their delays, lost luggage, or general fatigue. In various malls, shoppers would immediately surround us with huge smiles, sometimes joining in if the song was familiar.
Plus, we were privileged to sing some wonderful music—tunes that have survived the centuries because they are good. Years later, it’s still a point of pride for me that I can rattle off the words to most of the verses to nearly every Christmas carol the little baby Jesus has ever heard.
But over time, and uncounted hours of caroling… well, let’s just say that I’ve seen my share of Christmas-related disasters.
* * *
My first blunder happened on my first real caroling expedition… a real greenhorn mistake that taught me to always be prepared.
The culprit song was We Three Kings. This is a song everyone knows, but I think we often go into autopilot when we sing it. And truthfully, most people only sing the first verse… or maybe the final verse to add interest. But when caroling, you have all kinds of time to kill, and we generally did all the verses.
The song includes verses where each king tells about his gift to Jesus and the theological symbolism—gold to represent Jesus is king, the incense indicating he is divine, and the myrrh (a funerary herb) symbolizing his crucifixion. To add musical interest, our leader noted that we would do it with soloists on each of those lines, with each of us essentially playing the part of one of the kings.
I got the verse about myrrh. And I was pumped.
That said, I was completely unfamiliar with the verse and was essentially sight reading it. I started out all Hollywood smiles and cheerfulness for my solo, but my smile quickly shattered into a look of horror as I realized the disturbing imagery contained in the lyrics:
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom.
Sealed in a stone-cold tomb.
O-Oh! Star of wonder, star…
Wait, what…? “Sealed in a stone-cold tomb?!?” In a Christmas carol?
I was totally caught off guard, and I admit I did a miserable job at hiding my emotions. As my words trailed off, I turned to my companions with my face screwed up into slack-jawed revulsion, as if to say “Who wrote this stuff?” They saw my face and desperately contorted their faces to keep from erupting into the giggles. It was a losing battle, and soon they were all pointing at me and howling with laughter. The laughter spread to the listeners gathered around us, and it was several minutes before we were composed enough to start singing again. The ribbing continued for the rest of our gig.
I learned much about composure that day….
* * *
Sometimes when we were out caroling, we would find ourselves in completely surreal situations. For example, one year a property management company in downtown Minneapolis hired a quartet of us to wander through its downtown buildings and skyways, sharing joy with all their tenants.
But not to anyone else’s tenants.
The company was extraordinarily specific about where they wanted us to go, providing detailed directions and a map through the skyway so we would hit each of their downtown properties without going elsewhere. No problem, I thought—you’re paying me to go somewhere to sing? Cool, I’m gonna go there and sing.
But as we started our approved “parade route” so to speak, it quickly became clear that something was wrong. While we were strolling and singing, we crossed into a certain building and all the usual signs of civilization started fading. Fast. With each verse of Joy to the World we lost sight of people, stores, carpeting… and finally found ourselves alone in a construction zone. There were no workers there, but the dry wall had been ripped out, wiring was exposed, and the only light came from a couple of temporary lights that had been hooked over exposed support beams. Our singing became slightly more nervous and our footsteps faltered, as one of the singers hissed under his breath, “Jesus. This is where we go to die… and they won’t even find our bodies.” Our leader was adamant, however—the map said we had to cover this area so he pushed us forward, twittering away like herald angels, singing all the while.
And then she appeared.
She was the first person that we had seen in some time. I don’t have any clue as to where this woman could have come from, but suddenly she was right there in front of us with a couple of crisp new shopping bags filled with wrapped presents… and a jaw-dropping, 1960s-era bouffant. I mean, her hairdo required serious work, and a serious amount of Aqua Net. She showed no particular interest in being serenaded; while we continued singing, she pushed through us and walked in the other direction. We turned and continued singing at her for as long as we could see her, our voices touched with a bit of desperation to lose our last link to humanity in our industrial wasteland.
By the time our song ended, she was long-gone, and we were left alone and silent, with the gentle swirl of plaster dust drifting around us. In this pause, one singer held up his hand and commented, “Well… it’s kinda like snow…”
At that point the absurdity of our situation overwhelmed us, and we fell over laughing. Despite our strict instructions and the admonishments of our leader, we mutinied and headed back toward civilization.
* * *
My worst disaster, however, made me fearful for my immortal soul.
There were four of us caroling through a local shopping center, and generally having a great time. We would wander slowly while singing to gather a crowd, and when we reached a more open courtyard we would stop and give a short mini-concert for all the assembled.
Well. We had stopped at one such courtyard, and as we fanned out to do our little set, one of us pleaded, “Can we please do some different songs? We’ve been singing the same bloomin’ carols all night!”
The rest of us concurred, and we decided to dig deeper into our carol book for fresh ideas.
“What about What Child Is This?” someone asked. “People know it, but we’ve never done it.”
The one problem with doing a new song is that while we were broadly familiar with it, its novelty meant that we would be more closely tied to our music. To simplify things, we agreed to have soloists take the verses.
I took the first verse.
Now, for those unfamiliar with the carol, the first verse goes: “What Child is this, who laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping?” The second verse reads “Why lies he in such mean estate where ox and ass are feeding?”
Well… I did the unforgivable and let my eyes drop down the lines as I sang, accidentally combining the first and second verse. With great gusto and emotion, I crooned:
What child is this
Who laid to rest
On Mary’s ass is feeding…
There was a gasp—probably from me—and a moment of silence as the world went white before my eyes.
“BREAK!” shouted our leader, and we collectively fled the scene.
I’ve never been able to hear that particular song the same way again….
* * *
Merry Christmas, happy holidays, joyous New Year… and may your season be filled with music!