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Merry Band of Brothers, and Dozens of Friends, Keep Caroling Tradition Alive


Christmas caroling is one of those traditions that surveys show has been declining in recent decades. But there are still pockets of holiday singers here and there.

Nate Wildfire is one of those remaining carolers. He was 16 when he asked his mom if he could host a caroling event.

"So we had a big party," he says. "We decided, 'Let's sing! Let's spread some cheer.' Then mom makes enough food to feed an army."

Nate is now 28. He works as East Liberty Development Inc.'s sustainable policy coordinator. But each year before Christmas, he invites his old high school crowd, and new friends, back to his family home in Mt. Lebanon. His four younger brothers do the same. Their mother, Anne Wildfire, has hosted 13 years of caroling parties, some that brought 250 people through the house. Mrs. Wildfire spends days preparing for this big event, and ropes in anyone who gets in her way.

"One of the sons complained today," she said on Friday evening, in between stirring the chili. "He said, 'I'm tired. I don't want to do the party because there's too much work.' And I said, 'Well, it isn't your party, it's for all of the kids and it's for us because we love to see the kids come in.' Like tonight, already the first persons here was two of my son's friends, and he's in London. And isn't that awesome? Those two friends came yesterday to my house and worked in the kitchen."

Mrs. Wildfire grew up in a family of 12, a group that liked to sing. They had a tradition of getting on a party bus and making stops to carol for a list of people that their church had said could use some cheer. And as much as she likes the tradition, she knows why most people don't do it.

"Caroling is cold, it's awkward," she says.

Nonetheless, at 7:00 PM on Friday, her eldest son, Nate, pulled 25 people away from the warm living room where they gathered and out by the firepit in the front yard.

"Hey, bring it in. We're going to have a little practice," he told the group. "All right, 'Jingle Bells,' let's try it. You ready?"

They were ready. After the practice, the carolers visited more than a dozen homes in 90 minutes, singing about three songs at each stop. Families smiled and swayed and pulled everyone in the house to the door to watch. Young children and their parents, like Chris Potter and his wife Melanie, who have a newborn, especially enjoyed the unexpected serenade, as they've never been home when the Wildfire clan came through in Christmases past.

"It was awesome. It was wonderful. We've never had carolers come to our house, ever," Melanie said.

"It was so wholesome, I was actually alarmed by it," her husband, a writer for Pittsburgh City Paper, added.

Most people had the same reaction. Only a single house shuttered their windows. One little girl approached the group with a dollar bill from her grandmother. She was told that the singers were simply caroling for the fun of it. But if you consider caroling's history, the kid's gesture makes sense.

Bruce David Forbes, author of the book Christmas: A Candid History, says that in centuries past in England, "There was this tradition of people wandering around from house to house and it was supposed to be not ordinary begging but seasonal charity initiated by the people who needed to receive it."

Forbes says that early versions of the song "Here we come a wassailing" included the lines

We are not daily beggars
That beg from door to door;
But we are neighbors' children
Whom you have seen before.

However, Forbes says that in the days of colonial America, this got out of hand, leading to "kind of roving bands of youth that would cause trouble by going around."

While the Wildfire clan is youthful, they've kept trouble to tromping on their own parent's lawn. Perhaps it doesn't get too rowdy because they don't open the beer until after the carolers return.