How carollers keep a dying Christmas tradition alive
GoCarol from Indore, Seber from Pune, Delhi Bible Fellowship from Gurugram, Marthoma Syrian Ascension Choir from Hyderabad, and an interdenominational group from Lucknow, answer how Christmas carolling has changed in India.
Did you know that a popular Christmas song, Jingle Bells is not a Christmas Carol? It’s just a song! So, what’s the difference? A song that tells the story of the birth of Jesus Christ is called a carol.
The word carol means a dance or a song of praise or joy. Thousands of years ago, Europeans used to dance around the stone circles on Winter Solstice celebrations. When Christianity spread across Europe, early Christians replaced these winter songs with Christmas carols, since Christmas fell around the same time.
Initially, carols were composed in Latin, and since a majority of Europeans did not understand them, the tradition of Christmas carols died down for some time. However, it was revived again in 1223 by Francis Assisi, who started what’s termed as the ‘Nativity Plays’ in Italy. The Nativity Plays retold the story of the birth of Jesus, and so the songs (carols), were all about how and why Jesus came to Earth.
During the 1400s, there used to be ‘official carol singers’, who were called ‘Waits’. These were the music bands that used to be led by local leaders, who were active only during Christmas time and sang only carols. Soon after, two ways of carol singing emerged. In some places, choirs sang carols on the streets and shared the ‘Good News’ of Jesus’ birth with passers-by. Another tradition that became more popular, especially in Asian countries, was the door-to-door carolling.
Indian Christians picked up the latter, as they preferred knocking on the church members’ doors at night, and singing carols for them during the week, preceding Christmas. However, this tradition seems to be dying. Or so, it seemed before we set off to cover this story.
“I think a lot of churches like the Church of North India, the Methodist, the Marthoma, the Manonites, and other denominations still have a week of carolling, where they go to each church member's house and sing. I don't think it is dying, I think it is taking a different form. Carolling is a way of sharing the joy and the message of Christ. There are groups singing at shopping malls, airports, cafes, and restaurants trying to reach out to people,” says Sheryl Kuttickal, from Delhi Bible Fellowship (DBF) group in Gurugram.
The DBF has an English carol group led by Sheryl and Pastor Blesswin and a Hindi carol group led by Pastor Joy. Apart from singing at Christmas events around their church, the DBF’s carollers are called to corporate offices and residential Christmas parties to sing carols.
Most carollers start visiting houses during mid-December, but not in Lucknow. “We do door-to-door carolling between December 1 and 20, in Lucknow. Our focus is to identify homes that have elderly people who cannot go out or physically ill who are bed-ridden. We visit their homes and take the message of Christmas to cheer them,” says Reverend Daniel Moses, who leads the Lucknow carol group.
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‘Re-branding’ Christmas Carols for modern times
Pune-based Abhishek Kamble believes, more than keeping an age-old tradition, it is important to be relevant. Kamble is part of the Christian Music Band called, Seber, a Hebrew word meaning ‘hope’. The music band is a worship team from Hope Church based out of Pune.
To reach out to the Indian youth, Seber organises several events throughout the year on occasions such as Friendship Day or Valentine’s Day. Their Christmas Carol event is called, ‘Let Heaven and Nature Sing’ – a line taken from an old carol, ‘Joy to the World’.
“For you to relate to the public, you got to keep up with the times. The old type of carol singing used to be between close-knit Christians. What’s the point of it anyway? If you want to involve other communities in Christmas celebrations, it’s vital to re-brand carolling. Our Christmas concert is for anyone who loves music, regardless of their race or religion. The purpose of our concert is to build relationships,” adds Kamble. Their first concert, 13 years ago, had 100 people turning up. Their 2018 Christmas concert attracted a crowd of 800 people.
“The Bible tells us that the first news of the birth of Jesus Christ was proclaimed to a group of shepherds, who were guarding their sheep at night. It is believed that a choir of angels descended on the earth before the shepherds and sang songs about Jesus’ birth. How can we forget this?” asks Abhishek Masih from GoCarol, a music group based out of Indore.
The group has been carolling for eight years now, and their focus is on the ‘Gospel’, that is sharing the good news to people of all generations.
According to Reverend Daniel, Christmas carolling is a good way to proclaim the Gospel, (meaning Go Spell the Good News).
“A world-famous carol, ‘O Holy Night’, was written and composed to channelise the modern church against slavery. The carol played a huge role in making the Church realise that Jesus came to break our chains, and so slavery is wrong,” adds Masih.
A few lines from the carol stand out in this context-
“Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His name, all oppression shall cease.”
Are all carollers professional singers?
“Not at all. And, I can speak for most carol groups. Almost everybody in the group knows how to sing but, we all have our corporate jobs,” says Rhea Jacob from the Ascension Marthoma Syrian Church from Hyderabad. The group has people from ages between 16 and 60 years.
“Everyone in our group has a high level of commitment and sense of service. We all do our jobs during the day and carolling during the night in December,” adds Rev Daniel.
“Christmas is an awesome time of loving and sharing,” concludes Kamble.
(Edited by Suman Singh)
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