Hark! Is that Harold singing? In 2020?
For those who thought this Christmas season would be one silent night after another, there is reason to rejoice. Some carollers are finding ways of making themselves heard, and heard safely.
During Wednesday’s early evening hours, Dan Scramstad and Pierre Freynet made their way to Bowhill Lane, a cul-de-sac in Charleswood, where they sang We Wish You a Merry Christmas, Jingle Bells, Walking in a Winter Wonderland and other classics of the season for bundled-up folks on their front porches.
The audience members had all pitched in to pay for the performance through Curbside Concerts, a business that began in the summer to take musical performers to audiences during the pandemic.
"We’re really enjoying it a lot," Scramstad says of his carolling experience of 2020, which will include at least 10 more hour-long outdoor carolling concerts before Santa and his reindeer make their annual journey on Christmas Eve.
"There were a couple of nights where it was really cold. We did three in one night when it was minus 19 the other day. It was cold but it was really wonderful. It was bringing lots of joy to the neighbourhoods and to the places we played."
Seniors centres are regular stops for carolling groups and school choirs in December, but the coronavirus has hit older populations around the world particularly hard. Deadly outbreaks in Winnipeg seniors homes have garnered many headlines in the past couple of months as the second wave of COVID-19 reached Manitoba.
Therefore, few, if any visitors are allowed in Winnipeg care homes and residences this year in an attempt to keep people healthy.
For those who have managed to avoid the coronavirus, though, the cost has been high: weeks upon weeks of isolation with little interaction with friends or family, relying mostly on entertainment that emanates from a TV screen.
Scramstad and Freynet — who also performs francophone carols for Curbside Concerts — noticed how much those who are cooped up in care homes have cherished a few songs and the distraction from a year that’s been so difficult.
"We played outside a couple of condo buildings and outside a couple of senior blocks where they were able to watch us out the window," Scramstad says. "(There was) lot of appreciation and love from people.
"We both have guitars and we have battery-powered sound systems, so we can go quite loud. We played at a seniors block last week and they were leaning outside windows. We were playing across in a parking lot and they kept yelling ‘Turn it up, turn it up!’ so we had our sound system cranked so they could hear us."
Christmas carols go back thousands of years, and have always been sung at Christmas Eve and Christmas Day church services. The tradition of house-to-house carolling, or wassailing, took off around the beginning of the 20th century, when music books with sheet music were published and became widely circulated.
Groups of singers holding candles and carol books would visit households, sometimes invited, sometimes as a surprise, to sing Good King Wenceslas or O Holy Night. Afterward, hosts would offer a few snacks and a beverage to stave off the chill, and sometimes even a full meal as a token of appreciation.
Rosemarie Todaschuk remembers that experience carolling as a youngster to raise money for church groups and youth organizations, and later as a teacher, leading student choirs as part of the English-Ukrainian bilingual school program in Winnipeg.
The concerts would allow interaction between the generations, she says.
"While I was teaching I would take my students to carol in the various seniors homes. We’d go to Holy Family with one group; we’d go to St. Joseph’s with another group," she says. "The seniors homes, they just love it when the kids come to carol for them. I’d have the kids go from person to person to wish them a Merry Christmas and good health for the new year.
"While they were singing (the audiences) would be crying because it would bring back happy memories."
“The seniors homes, they just love it when the kids come to carol for them. I’d have the kids go from person to person to wish them a Merry Christmas and good health for the new year." – Rosemarie Todaschuk
Todaschuk also teamed up with her sister Charlene to form the Todaschuk Sisters, who in previous years have performed at seniors centres and packed coffee houses during the holiday season leading up to Jan. 7, which is Christmas Day for Christians who follow the Julian calendar, including those in Orthodox faiths.
"Picture McNally Robinson — they have the second floor of the bookstore and people would be leaning over the railing listening to us carolling," Rosemarie Todaschuk says of the duo’s concerts.
A couple of years back they released a CD of Ukrainian-language carols — Jan. 7 is often called Ukrainian Christmas across Western Canada, owing to the preponderance of Ukrainian settlers on the Prairies — and they couldn’t imagine a year without singing carols such as The Bright Star in the Heavens.
One problem: Rosemarie lives in Winnipeg and Charlene lives in Montreal, and travelling is yet another no-no during the pandemic.
So, like so many artists in 2020, the Todaschuk Sisters bridged the gap by going to the internet, and began posting videos on their YouTube channel (wfp.to/todaschuk). They kicked it off Dec. 10 with The Bright Star in the Heavens and on Thursday morning they posted the lullaby, Sleep Jesus Sleep.
"That’s the platform that people have been reverting to during the pandemic," Rosemarie says. "It’s for people to remember the times of the carols and have their hearts warmed with the singing of Jesus’s birth."
Scramstad, who works in plumbing and heating during the day and trades in his wrench for a guitar at night, says the 2020 carolling experience will be a memorable one, mostly because of the obstacles musicians and audiences must overcome to connect.
"I’ve done it on my own in the past, but I like this even more because of the way we’re doing it," he says. "We thought it would be a little awkward at first, which it can be a little bit. But a lot of these people just really appreciate having something at all. It’s more needed than ever."
Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.