A Jew Goes Caroling
by Site Author
On an unseasonably warm, December night, a crowd gathered on a city corner. They gathered there to sing Christmas carols, and I found myself, my wife, and my daughter among them. My daughter’s Jewish preschool doesn’t teach her Christmas carols, but she was excited at the promise that, once the caroling was over, cookies and hot chocolate would be served.
As soon as we arrived, she joined two of her playground friends who were already caroling away. The girls danced together, to the delight of the carolers, who seemed mostly to be in their 70s and predisposed to coo at preschoolers.
I had only agreed to come because I expected one round of Noel. But instead, after every second carol, the crew packed up, moved down a few buildings, and started signing again.
There was a kind of routine to this. The jolly, older white man who seemed to be in charge yelled “Merry Christmas!” to the one or two people looking down from their apartments. He then led the march a few buildings down to another couple peering from their apartment windows. And then it was Silent Night and O Come, All Ye Faithful.
So many songs and all for one holiday! Are there songs for Easter and Ash Wednesday, too, or do Christians only sing in December? Are there neighborhoods, ones less Jewish than this one, with competing caroling choruses? What happens if two groups of carolers cross paths? Do they compete like break dancers in a b-boy battle?
Similar questions came to me. I wondered what an uber-but-for-Christmas-carols service would look like. But I soon gave up and simply focused on maintaining the illusion that I knew the words to each Christmas carol. The carolers handed out books of lyrics as though they were hagaddahs. They called out page numbers before each new song began. But I couldn’t read the words in the dark, and anyway relying on the book seemed like cheating.
Still, I wasn’t sure what to do while everyone else sang. At first, I tried bopping up and down, and then I tried to mouth along. I had never before heard It Came Upon a Midnight Clear let alone sung it. In the end, I just stood and smiled. My smile was likely similar to the ones Christians would wear were they to attend Shabbat services at a conservative shul. Only there they would have felt even more out of place, what with the Hebrew and the traditions that surely must appear more bizarre to outsiders than a cheery rendition of Away in a Manger.
I looked over at my three-year-old daughter who was having a blast dancing with her friends. Somehow, she had learned the words to Jingle Bells, and it had become her favorite song. After the end of each carol, she would shout a request: “Jingle Bells! Jingle Bells!” only to be disappointed that the carolers were moving on to While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night. But no matter, though she didn’t know the words to that one, she held her friends’ hands tightly and spun and spun.
The preschoolers’ good mood lasted as long as the caroling. When the singing was over, they all began melting down. We had to tear our daughter away from a tray of cookies and then engineer a tearful goodbye from her friends. Even then, my daughter refused to walk any further, and I had to carry her home on my shoulders.
I wanted to ask her what she thought of the whole thing, and whether she understood that it was all another people’s tradition. I wanted to explain to her what my parents went through when they moved to this country, how they decided to send me to a Jewish day school, and how we were doing the same for her.
I would have liked to talk to her about assimilation and identity, and what religion means today. We’d talk about how refugees that face the same struggle my daughter’s great-grandparents faced are being turned away because of their religion. We’d talk about how it’s impossible to understand your own religion without understanding others.
But my daughter is three, and she was tired after two hours of dancing and caroling and eating way too many cookies. So I just asked her what her favorite part was. She said it was Jingle Bells.