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'Many Things To Many People,' Christmas Carols More Than Nostalgia

Christmas is a time for trail blazers (Just ask Rudolph). The What the Dickens? Carolers! rely on a mix of red-nosed reindeer spunk and age-old tradition when spreading holiday cheer.

“I really think a lot of this is about nostalgia, and getting people to think about what is important, truly important at Christmastime,” said Kathy Kennedy, a founder of What the Dickens? Carolers! She’s seen shoppers stop in their tracks more than once after they’ve spotted the Victorian garbed quartets singing.  

"I have 168 Christmas albums at home."

What the Dickens? sends those quartets to various locations across Colorado. On a recent Saturday, foursomes strolled the streets of Golden and Parker. You could also find them onstage at the Colorado Dickens Faire at the Denver Mart, right where 3-year-old Rikki Hatch caught them.

Hatch was busy with her own reindeer games. Pushing the boundaries of the centuries old practice of caroling, she takes children’s standards and adds her own special holiday spice insisting that “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” “Mary Had A Little Lamb” and “Old MacDonald” are just as relevant to the Yuletide season as “Feliz Navidad” and the aforementioned ‘most famous reindeer of all.’

Despite her flare for the avant-garde, Hatch doesn’t shun tradition. Witness a recent performance from Denver’s What The Dickens? Carolers!’ The time-honored songs had her up on her feet and grooving.

Like Hatch, the members of What the Dickens? Carolers! are really into it.

“I have 168 Christmas albums at home,” What the Dickens? bass singer Gerry Tegeder proudly states.

While maybe not “Mary Had A Little Lamb” unconventional, Tegeder is partial to off-kilter songs such as Gene Autry’s country version of “When Santa Claus Gets Your Letter,” originally recorded in the 1950s. 

There is a distinction to be made between Christmas songs and Christmas carols.

Credit Carrie Saldo / Arts District
Arts District
Bass singer Gerry Tegeder of What the Dickens? Carolers! holds the sheet music for one of his favorite off-kilter Christmas songs 'When Santa Claus Gets Your Letter.'

“I think the original Christmas carol would not be even distinguished by its contemporary counterpart,” said Galen Darrough University of Northern Colorado Director of Choral Activities.

Musically speaking Christmas carols adhere to a verse and a refrain. Then there’s the audible distinction.

“One sounds like a church hymn and the other sounds like a popular tune with commercial harmonies, jazz-like rhythms things like that,” said Darrough.

While carols were long sung in churches to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the New Oxford Book of Carols, states the earliest secular Christmas carol was published in 1521 in England.

Carols were taken to the streets a few centuries later in Victorian England. Those tunes combined religious and secular themes, popularized caroling, and provided the nostalgic image that many associate with Christmas carols today.

Hence the Victorian garb of the What The Dickens? Carolers!

Despite its evolution, when it comes to Christmas music and the larger celebration one thing has remained consistent.

“It was an explosion of nostalgia and looking to the past for an idealized, romanticized Christmas. And we all do that with all of the Christmas tunes,” Darrough said. “I think that in and of itself is somewhat comforting, whether they are sacred tunes or secular tunes. Christmas carols and Christmas songs mean so many things to so many different people.”  

Hatch, a curly-locked blonde who twirled and bounced with abandon to carols and Christmas songs alike, was clearly was inspired by what she heard.

“Merry Christmas,” Hatch said softly and sweetly.

Still too young for nostalgia, it’s that endearing behavior she hopes will assure Santa brings her a new pair of ballet shoes under the Christmas tree.

Arts District is a collaboration of KUNC, Rocky Mountain PBS, and KUVO.

A native of Stamford, VT, I call(ed) the Berkshires of western Massachusetts my home. The Berkshires are a culturally rich area -- I’m talking pass the butter and heavy cream -- rich.
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