We’re not sure the exact year we started. We used to be better at keeping up with that sort of thing. I’m not even quite sure how I was included that first year, other than I had attended my church’s Christmas Eve service and had friends in the choir who I hung out with after the service.
One of our choir members was a doctor and, like me, was new to the church.He had started a tradition when he was still an intern, Christmas caroling at a local hospital on Christmas Eve. He wanted to continue it at a hospital in his new city. He invited his fellow choir members to join him.
Being single and in town on my own until I drove to spend Christmas with my family the next morning, I had nothing else going on. Maybe someone invited me, probably Kevin (the doctor), but I may have invited myself. I have no recollection. All I know is that I went that first night and it has been my Christmas Eve tradition now for well over 25 years. Since we began I have lived out of that city for more years than I lived there, but I have only missed two years since that time.
We meet in the hospital lobby and warm up with a quick carol. We use the same copies of song sheets (probably 20 pages total) we have used all that time, knowing what songs can be found on page 68 and page 80, and also knowing what songs we have butchered in the past that by general agreement will never be sung again.
We head up and work our way down, a route determined by what our fearless leader thinks best.
We never know who and how many will show up to carol in a given year. We have seen kids grow up and bring their own kids. I remember one kid in particular who hated going when his parents first made him, telling me after his college years this was a tradition he would try to keep no matter where he lived.
These days there are almost always more people I don’t know than those I do. But there is a core group from past years, and both strangers and friends have all become what I call “my Christmas Eve family”.
We stop at the door to a patient’s room and Dr. Little typically will ask “Would you like to hear a Christmas carol?” I’m always surprised that most say yes. They may regret it when their room is quickly packed full of people singing.
I’m the type of patient that would probably say no to “intruders” if I am in the hospital, preferring to be alone when I don’t feel well, though now I know that I would be missing out on a special experience. How often do you get a private concert when you’re in the hospital? How often do strangers come by that want to simply show you love while praying that you get better soon? It’s a beautiful thing.
Some patients have sung with us, others simply close their eyes and listen. Others get a bit teary. Many enjoy chatting, some requesting their favorite song. One thing I have noticed, no matter their faith or lack thereof, whether they usually celebrate Christmas or not, they enjoy the time.
One of the most touching moments for me was a man who tracked us down about 15 minutes after we sang in his wife’s room. He was obviously emotional as he came up to me and thanked me.
”That’s probably the last time she will hear Christmas carols on this earth, ” he said, sobbing as I reached out and hugged him. She was a late-stage cancer patient and his gratefulness and the awareness we had given the couple another special memory to share, even during a tough time, inspired awe.
One Christmas Eve a stranger joined us that said he was at home feeling sorry for himself because he was by himself on Christmas Eve and he thought to himself, “Who could be more lonely than me tonight?” He decided to go to the hospital and ask the staff if anyone needed someone to talk to. Instead, he heard us singing and just joined the group. He showed up the next year, too.
It started as a group from one church, but that church eventually disbanded and its members scattered to other churches around town. Now we don’t quite know where some of those who show up are from, but they are friends of friends who came in the past.
At the beginning and end of every Christmas Eve hospital caroling, our tradition is to head to the stairwell. There we sing the carol that is page number 80.
“Angels we have heard on high,
singing sweetly o’er the plains
and the mountains in reply
echoing their joyous strains.
Gloria in excelsis Deo,
gloria in excelsis Deo.
Shepherds, why this jubilee?
Why your joyous strains prolong?
What the gladsome tidings be?
Which inspire your heavenly songs?
Come to Bethlehem and see
him whose birth the angels sing.
Come, adore on bended knee
Christ the Lord, the newborn King.
Chorus” — Original author unknown, English lyrics by James Chadwick
All I can tell you is that sound in that stairwell will let you know that God is near and heavenly choirs can indeed join our voices on this earth. There’s no other explanation for why a bunch of humans thrown together one night a year can open up the doors of heaven.
I’ll miss my caroling Christmas Eve tradition in this year of COVID, where a group of open mouths singing in close quarters in a hospital is a horrifying idea. I’ve already made my appointment to donate platelets that day so possibly I can gift a patient in another special way. (Yes, the Red Cross is open for donations in many places on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, if you’re looking for something to do.)
But I will remember to pray that the patients at this hospital and hospitals everywhere will hear the voice of God in some way and that all who care for them will be filled with wisdom and strength and enough love to make them all feel special. #nbholidaycheer