Sometime deep in December, after the midpoint of the month but before the darkest day of the year, I go caroling. I do it every year.
It's not something I would ever do on my own: I'm scared of knocking on doors. Every Halloween, I made my little brother precede me up the steps. During school fundraisers, I scraped together my allowance money and bought the depressing tins of caramel corn myself. I'm a grown woman now, but every time I do a home visit for my job I stand on the stoop and wait a few seconds, hoping.
Still, I go caroling. A group of my parents' friends began doing it twenty-five years ago, long enough for me not to remember the first time I polluted the close and holy darkness by yelping the annotated version of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer (reindeer!). Since then, bellies have slackened. My father has grown an unexpected shock of white hair. Several couples have divorced, and their children have gotten married. More than one person has died.
This year, the house hosting the pre-caroling party is overrun with little girls. Little girls chase each other up and down the stairs and fall over each other in their efforts to reach the candy. Little girls pull each others' hair and wind in and out of the legs of the adults, most of whom are deep into the cider bowl.
I make the kind of desultory small talk you make with people who have known you since you rolled on the floor howling. They look at you with cloudy eyes, unable to shake the double vision: you now and you yanking their daughter's ponytail; their son in the dark of the winter back yard making out with your best friend.
We warm up inside with Jingle Bells, which everybody knows, and move on to God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, which everybody has forgotten. No matter: we're off, trundling into the night which is chilly or icy or unseasonably warm, which is snowy or rainy or moon-perfect clear. Some people open their doors with frozen smiles. Others light up. A few hide, even though you can see, through the slats of the blinds, their heads silhouetted against the glow of their flat-screen TV's.
We do more than five houses and less than twelve. Everyone tries to sing harmony at once. When part of the group walks too far ahead, the carol splits into uneasy canon. We can't see the song books in the dark; our breath fogs the air.
It's never entirely fun, the caroling, but it is important. The rest of the year, our children don't kiss. We don't pull one anothers' hair and our neighbors' doors are always shut. It's quiet in the back yard and quiet in the streets and we're too busy to keep track of where we're going, let alone what to sing when we get there.
The cure for this is simple. Knock hard. Yowl Good King Wenceslas at the top of your lungs. Wait to be let in.