Throughout the month of December, Laura Speranza, alone in her car, sings along to Christmas carols on the radio. She loves “Silent Night” and “O Holy Night.” She does a mean “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” Sometimes she even hears her somewhat obscure favorite, “Dominic the Donkey.”
Speranza watches Hallmark movies. She sees those characters gather round the piano, tunefully harmonizing with their families.
“This would be more fun,” she thinks, “to be able to sing along.”
That’s what brought her to the Alexandria Citizens Band’s singalong at Del Ray United Methodist Church on a wintry night this holiday season. “Are we singing hymns?" she whispers, tripping over the consonants as she takes a hymnal from a pew. "How do you say it, hymns? It’s been so long since I opened one of these.”
The music starts: “O Come All Ye Faithful.” A smile sneaking onto her face, Speranza joins in.
There’s something about the Christmas season that makes us want to sing — specifically, to sing together. Other times, we’re too old and too busy, and we really can’t carry a tune. Not at Christmas. At Christmas, we sing.
Raucous or rehearsed, pious or irreverent, we just love to raise our voices together in groups at this time of year. Even as Americans grow less religious and less participatory, more likely to spend an evening with our Netflix accounts than our church choirs, the old-fashioned singalong is having a moment.
Hark! The Christmas carolers sing
Almost any night of December, a Washingtonian who wanted to go Christmas caroling could find an opportunity to do so. Churches around the region host caroling parties, going door to door to sing holiday songs at members' houses, and “Messiah” singalongs to perform George Frideric Handel’s still-beloved 1742 composition as a community.
Not a member of a church? From Vienna to Alexandria to Columbia Heights, nonreligious community groups convened large gatherings to sing carols in the past few weeks.
Not into traditional Christmas music? You could try “carol karaoke” at Solly’s bar on U Street, the Disney singalong at a Baltimore public library or the movie-themed singalong at another D.C. bar, to name a few events all hosted in December. Two Washington synagogues, Sixth & I and Temple Micah, co-hosted their first Hanukkah singalong this year, where Jewish adults sang protest songs from social justice movements while eating latkes in the sanctuary.
By Sunday, the Christmas singing will reach a fever pitch — they’ll be packing the streets of Fells Point in Baltimore in the annual caroling extravaganza; sharing every word of “Messiah” at the Kennedy Center’s hugely popular annual singalong; participating right along with the movie “White Christmas” and thousands of audience members at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.
“The holiday spirit, the Christmas spirit is all about community building — being joyous together and supporting one another. That’s what we’re trying to capture through community singing," said Marshall Duer-Balkind. He and his friend David Casserly have organized a “wassail” — a traditional door-to-door parade of singers — at Christmastime in Columbia Heights for six years running. This year, they drew a crowd of more than 80 people.
“I don’t have much musical background. I’m not a great singer. Part of the joy of this is you don’t have to be a great singer to enjoy singing collectively and enjoy being in a community with people who like to sing,” said Duer-Balkind, 35, a sustainability consultant who formerly lived in a group house that hosted monthly folk singing nights, where the idea of the wassail was born. “Most people are just there to have a good time and belt it out, and that’s definitely where I am.”
Casserly is the far more musical member of the pair — he was in conservatory for jazz saxophone before he dropped out and became a government lawyer; he still plays in a band, sings and dances with folk music groups, and participates in two ritual sword dancing teams. But he recognizes that singing opportunities for most adults are few.
Most children sing in school. College students can join a cappella groups. When those enthusiastic crooners hit adulthood, though, most of them stop singing.
Christmastime draws them back. “For a lot of people,” Casserly said, “this is possibly the only group singing event they go to all year.”
Good tidings we bring
More than one-third of all Americans say they have childhood memories of caroling, and in any given year, many still participate as adults. One of 5 Americans who observe Christmas as a religious holiday told Pew Research Center in 2013 that they would be caroling that year, and 8 percent of people with no religion said they would go caroling, too.
Singing in groups is good for us. It’s in our very makeup. Scientific research has shown that singing with fellow humans confers tremendous benefits that are hard to achieve by belting alone in the shower or by doing just about anything else with other people. Crafting? Creative writing? In a British study, to name one example of this sort of research, participants who were assigned to sing together felt far closer, faster, to their groupmates than those who scribbled or scrawled.
“There are physiological and brain function reasons for that — there’s something about making the human voice together that has its own unique capacity,” said Kate Hays, a Toronto psychologist who has written about the scientific benefits of singing, from oxygen-rich deep breaths, to cognitive improvement from utilizing little-used areas of the brain, to soothing relief from distressing thoughts. Aware of these benefits, Hays went to a senior citizens’ home last week to sing with the residents.
Carols are one time that scientific and religious consensus agree, Hays said. “There’s a spiritual piece in there, too,” she said. “It may be some sense of the specialness of Christmas or of the season that can also bring that sense of connection with other people in doing something meaningful. ... I’m thinking of songs like ‘Good King Wenceslas,’ which really have to do with charity in the best sense. Carols can elevate us from some of the crassness of Christmas and all of that stuff.”
Jenny Koch, an urban planner in the District, sees that remarkable power of group singing on display every month. When she attended a singalong in Portland, “I went, ‘Hey, this is kind of magical,’ ” she recalls. Koch, like many people she knows, grew up singing in church but no longer regularly goes to religious services. She wanted a place for singing that was secular.
The Washington singalong series she created four years ago, A People’s Choir DC, has been going strong ever since. This month’s event was five days before Christmas at the bar DC 9, a regular spot for her singers to gather, and focused on movie tunes. “It’s nice to bring people together to [sing] in a very different setting, one that’s comfortable for a lot of people, where they can be social and still get that singing out,” she said. Occasionally she’s surprised by the most popular song in a given month: “I played ‘Mr. Brightside’ by the Killers once. I didn’t realize everyone in the room was going to just lose it.”
O sing, choirs of angels
At the Kennedy Center, director of public programming Diana Ezerins says the nation’s preeminent public arts venue is newly recognizing the popularity and the value of group singing. The “Messiah” singalong is a longtime favorite; the quirky “Merry TubaChristmas!” which has a singalong component as well as a huge number of brass instruments grew so popular this year that it moved into a larger concert hall space; more than 500 people will join in a Christmas caroling event for the elderly on the day after Christmas that is also expected to be larger than ever this year. Another event that packed the house: a late November “Hamilton” singalong.
“For the history of the Kennedy Center, for the most part, our programming, the building itself was designed to sit and watch the experts,” Ezerins said. “We haven’t had much history of being known for offering those types of [participatory] experiences. But certainly when we’ve done them, people show up.”
When the Kennedy Center opens new performance space in September 2019 that is currently under construction, Ezerins is planning much more participatory programming for the new areas — including more singalongs.
“Walk away from whatever drama is happening in your love life. Your work life. On the Hill,” she said. “Be part of the creative fabric of the community of the citizens of this city. ... Moments of expression are really important to our identity, to what it means to be an American.”
Those chances for expression, she believes, are also ripe with religious meaning. No wonder they proliferate around Christmas.
“Any act of creativity, once you give yourself over to it, you’re existing on another plane — whether that is someone’s connection to God, or the planet, or whatever,” she said. “I would find it hard to not say that that is spiritual.”