For KUTX host John Aielli, Christmas caroling isn’t a tradition stuck in the past.
Instead, it’s the very heart of everything we celebrate during the holiday season.
"All cultures throughout history have relied on music in one way or another to cement their culture and to insure its continuation over time," he says. Even if you don’t celebrate Christmas, the end of December has been a time for winter festivities for millennia, and songs are how we pass down the meaning of those celebrations from generation to generation.
Hearing these songs on the radio is one way that we pass them on to the next generation, but for Aielli, there’s no substitute for gathering with people of all ages to sing them together.
That’s why he continues to host a massive caroling singalong at the Texas Capitol every winter, a tradition he started more than 40 years ago when it was just a small gathering of people under the capitol dome.
The original caroling event became so popular inside the Capitol — "We had people standing on all the terraces; the resonance was tremendous" — that the fire marshal told them they had to take it outside, where it now coincides with the city’s annual lighting of the Christmas tree.
The holiday singalong returns at 6 p.m. Saturday on the south side of the Capitol building, where he’ll lead hundreds of singers in renditions of "Deck the Halls," "Oh Come All Ye Faithful" and "Here Comes Santa Claus" with co-host Elizabeth McQueen.
He has as much respect for the contemporary songs as the older songs, like "Silent Night" or "O Tannenbaum," which were written in the 1800s.
"Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" has been around since at least 1739, making it one of the oldest songs in the Christmas canon, but Aielli is just as happy to sing "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer," popularized by Gene Autry in 1949.
"Don’t leave out ‘Frosty’ or you’ll be in big trouble," he says. "Those kids are very demanding, and it’s all about making them happy."
In college, Aielli would carol with his friends, where they would go around to hospitals in the days before Christmas. He remembers one patient in particular. "This guy had to be 100 years old," Aielli says. "He was just on his last breath, but he lit up when we sang those Christmas songs in his room. We went on down the hall, and when we were leaving, one of the nurses came up and said that the man had died just after we left the room."
The profound connection he experiences when singing with other people is also what McQueen says she loves about participating in this event.
McQueen didn’t go caroling as a child, but she has been a singer and member of one band or another for much of her adult life.
Caroling is so different than performing a song for a crowd, where you’re putting something out there for others to receive. "When everyone is singing the same song and you’re having this shared experience, it’s an amazing thing," she says.
McQueen says that singing in a choir when she was younger was the first time she felt this connection. "Singing together is one of the ways to take yourself out of yourself and connect with people in this really magical way," she says. "It gave me an early understanding that there’s more to this world than just me."
One song she insists on singing every year is "12 Days of Christmas." "It’s a marathon of a song, and it takes forever, but you go through this journey together," she says. "It’s hard to breathe, but by the 12th verse, it feels like you’re celebrating the completion of something big."
But don’t feel like you have to finish all the verses of every song, she says. "‘Jingle Bells’ gets very dark the longer you go," she says.
One of her favorite songs to sing at the KUTX event is "Silent Night" (the station provides songbooks that people can take home). "We do it a cappella, and it’s so pretty," she says. "It feels like magic."
Here are some tips on starting a caroling tradition with your family or friends:
• Pick songs that you like singing and that are relatively well known. Obscure holiday songs won’t resonate as much with listeners, and they are harder to sing for people who haven’t practiced them.
• Once you pick the songs, print out the lyrics. Everybody might know the chorus of, say, "Winter Wonderland," but the verses can get a little fuzzy. Having the words in front of you gives you a clear idea of when and where to start and finish.
• Singing Christmas carols in the car isn’t the same thing as caroling. Get out in your neighborhood, inside a mall, on the sidewalks of a street downtown or at the Domain, or at a hospital or nursing home.
• If you’re going to a medical facility, call ahead to make sure it’s OK that you’re coming. For several years, my kids and I have caroled at nursing homes in Austin and in my hometown in Missouri. Each time we’ve called ahead, the staff were thrilled to hear that we were coming, and the patients were delighted to see and sing along with us.
• When caroling, some people like to walk around and sing, while others like to find a place where there is a lot of foot traffic and they can stand in one place and sing. For some groups, it might be a combination of both.
• Prepare for the weather and set a firm start and end time. When inviting people to come along, it’s nice to be able to tell them exactly when and where you’ll be. Walking and singing can be tiring, so set an end time to prevent the "just one more" mentality that can drag it out for the performers. Bring along hot cocoa or cider, if you like, or find a watering hole to gather at after the merriment.
• Caroling isn’t about perfection. Even if you have a small group, a small set of songs or an inability to sing on key, it’s the act of getting out there that’s important. Include young children and older folks, if possible. Kids might not understand just how special it is for them to share their songs with older people, but sharing these songs could end up being the highlight of both of their holiday seasons.