Christmas Caroling Etiquette

Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green,
Here we come a-wand’ring
So fair to be seen.
Love and joy come to you,
And to your wassail, too,
And God bless you, and send you
A Happy New Year,
And God send you a Happy New Year.
~ The Wassail Song 

As someone who is plain goofy about the Christmas holidays (but like Charlie Brown doesn’t like the crass commercialism that accompanies them), I love caroling. So, I was pleased to discover both traditional as well as a bit of creative caroling on some college campuses, such as Bridgewater College in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, Syracuse University in New York and the University of Toronto Law School. And, for more than a century Christmas carol services have been performed at Harvard, which has connections to a number of famous composers of Christmas carols.

Caroling at malls, nursing homes, shelters and hospitals, serenading one’s neighbors or gathering around the piano at someone’s home, with a good fire roaring and plenty of nibbles, wassail and hot chocolate are all wonderful ways to enjoy this ancient and time-honored custom.

A Brief History of Caroling

Caroling – or wassailing (from the Old Norse, ves heill, which means “be well”) as it was called back in the Middle Ages – began not as a Christmas custom, but, as The Wassail Song indicates, a way for the common folk to spread New Year’s greetings of good health and cheer in the hope of receiving food or money in return, and might be how the custom evolved of offering carolers hot chocolate and cookies when they come “a-wassailing.” Caroling is also thought by some to have its roots in the Pagan celebration of Yule, or Winter Solstice, which also involved dancing.

Caroling became associated with Christianity around the Fifth Century but wasn’t connected to Christmas until the 13th Century when St. Francis of Assisi introduced the more joyful and upbeat melodies and rhythms with which we are now familiar. A few centuries later, Martin Luther promoted caroling throughout the western world. Luther loved music and carols and wrote a number of them himself, including one of the most famous, “Away in a Manger.”

Christmas celebrations, including caroling, began to wane around the 17th Century under Oliver Cromwell, but enjoyed a great resurgence during the Victorian era, as exemplified in Charles Dickens’ novella, A Christmas Carol.

The Etiquette of Caroling 

Caroling is a way to spread comfort and joy to others. Whether you’re performing at a particular location or have assembled a group of friends to stroll through your neighborhood, below are some image and etiquette tips that, if followed, will prompt cries of, “Let’s do this again next year,” and “Please come back!”

Protocol for Carolers  

  1. Dress well. Your group should look good as well as sound good.
  2. Light the way. Bring flashlights so you can see where to walk and are able to read your song sheets. For a charming vintage effect, each caroler might carry a hand-held battery operated candle. Wear reflective decals for safety.
  3. Select your songs and music. Prepare song books with at least the lyrics and make sure everyone knows the melody for each song. If instruments are involved, include the appropriate sheet music. Try to have at least one rehearsal even for the most casual caroling party.
  4. Check the time. Schedule caroling through the neighborhood after the dinner hour but before children’s bedtime if you live in a family neighborhood.
  5. Obtain permission. If you plan to carol at a mall, hospital or other similar location, obtain permission from the proper authorities.
  6. Be inclusive. For casual strolling, carolers don’t have to be accomplished singers; they just have to know the words and music, project their voices, be enthusiastic and wear big smiles. For those who are hesitant to sing, include some simple musical instruments such as triangles, bells and tambourines that they can play.
  7. Don’t solicit. Avoid asking people for donations unless you have advertised that you will be caroling on a particular date and time for charity. People don’t want to feel put upon. If you’re not caroling for charity, don’t accept tips – only cookies and hot chocolate!
  8. Keep your distance. Sing from the street, sidewalk or pathway and avoid knocking on doors or ringing doorbells. Your singing alone should attract interest, and if it doesn’t just move on. Should someone invite you in for refreshments, decide if it’s safe or wise to accept, or if you have time. Don’t hesitate to suggest that you are happy to stay on the porch for refreshments rather than impose, or politely decline. If you do accept, be polite and thoughtful guests; don’t tramp in dirt or snow or overstay your welcome.
  9. Say thank you. Be polite and gracious when people show their appreciation by applauding or providing refreshments, then quietly and gracefully be on your way.

Protocol for the Serenaded  

  1. Don’t be Scrooge or The Grinch. Be gracious to carolers; they are spreading joy and mean well. Open your door and applaud their efforts. If you know in advance that they’ll be coming a-wassailing, have some simple refreshments ready to give to them, such as cookies or chocolates. If you are into entertaining, invite the carolers in for a few minutes, or invite them to come back after they’ve finished, and show your hospitality and holiday spirit!
  2. Darken your door. If you are in the middle of dinner, getting ready for bed, not feeling well or have another reason for not welcoming carolers, turn off your porch light or otherwise indicate that you cannot come to the door. If you are feeling Grinchy, refrain from saying, “Bah, humbug!” (That’s Scrooge’s line, anyway.)
  3. Let your children learn. How wonderful for children to learn that there is another holiday besides Halloween in which people come calling! And this time there are no tricks involved — although there might be costumes.

I can understand how the Grinch felt when he said, “Blast this Christmas music! It’s joyful and triumphant!” Indeed it is!

Until next time,


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