These last few days before Christmas have a habit of flying past. They always seem to disappear in a blur of last-minute stresses (no, Hermes, my parcel is definitely not on the doorstep), the tying up of loose ends (a whole team meeting at 4pm on the 24th? Sure…), and the checking and rechecking of 20 lists (maybe I should make that third flavour of stuffing after all?)
But what about the lead-up to Christmas if you live three and a half thousand miles away, in Glen Rock, Pennsylvania?
“The song symbolizes our first visit to England after an absence of 150 years. It amazes us that after all those years, our songs still sound and feel like yours.”Darryl J. Engler
Glen Rock is a borough in York County, PA, with a population of about 2,000. I’m guessing there are plenty of similarities between Christmas here and Christmas there. Out-of-Offices will be turned on. ‘The Lists’ will be written and checked twice. I bet they have unreliable delivery drivers, too.
But they also have something else, and people in Glen Rock will have been making a note of this year’s route, which, in case you were wondering, is Manchester-Hanover-Baltimore-Church…
Has this all got a bit cryptic? Let me explain.
Carols in Glen Rock
This small town in the Quaker State is home to the Glen Rock Carolers, who, on the stroke of midnight on Christmas morning, will begin to sing under an illuminated star in the middle of the town. The music will continue until dawn, as they walk on their pre-determined route around the streets, as has been the case for the last 173 years. They’ll finish between 5am and 6am before bidding each other (and any super-keen followers) a Happy Christmas and returning to their warm homes.
These men (and it is exclusively men) are continuing a remarkable tradition that began in 1848 and has continued unbroken since then, with its roots in the area of Micklehurst, between Sheffield and Manchester, in England. There are currently 132 names on the Glen Rock Carolers Association roll call, from ‘Life Members’ – the longest-serving of whom is preparing for his 67th consecutive Christmas Eve – to ‘Prospects’, no doubt excited for their first walkabout with the choir.
But who were those original singers?
Well, all great traditions must start somewhere, and this one starts with a small group of Englishmen –immigrants from Cheshire, Derbyshire and Yorkshire. Since 1837, when a chap called William Heathcote had bought land in the area, a new village had been developing. Heathcote was modelling it into quite the thriving centre for wool and rope production, and having built a fine new mill and renamed the settlement ‘Glen Rock’, he sent word back to England that a few more pairs of hands in the family business might not go amiss.
Two more Heathcote brothers arrived in 1839 (Mark and James), followed by a couple of nephews (Mark and Charles) and their rope-making friend (George). Everyone should know a rope maker. Terribly useful. On that first Christmas eve, it’s thought that the homesick youngsters persuaded Mark and James Heathcote to partake in a festive tradition from across the pond – taking to the streets to serenade their neighbours, and so carolling began in Glen Rock.
With the classic line-up of four voices accompanied by bassoon (pretty certain that’s what The Beatles considered originally), out they went with their repertoire of just four English carols – ‘Christmas Hymn’, ‘Hark Hark’, ‘While Shepherds’, and ‘Hosanna’. Like I said, everything starts somewhere. It might have sounded a bit like this…
The tradition continues…
It must have been well-received by the other residents. They went out again the following year. And the year after that. And… *checks notes*… the year after that, too. Someone once told me that, a few years in, Glen Rock was hit by a terrible winter and when Christmas Eve came around, four of the men were coincidentally busy. I assume they were ‘washing their hair’. But the fifth man wasn’t, so if the story is true – and I like to think that it is – the tradition survived because one person thought it should. The (potentially apocryphal) lesson here is that if you can’t rally the troops for something you think is important, go it alone.
Assuming the weather is better behaved than it might have been in the 1850s, and was again in 2020, when the torrential downpours seemed entirely fitting for the tone of the preceding 10 months, the current group of carollers will don their distinctive uniform – wool cloaks, scarves, and top hats (the very image of a Victorian gent in winter) – pick up their canes, and gather with their musicians to sing in distinctive three-part harmony. The melody is taken by the soprano or lead voices, with high tenors above and basses below, and they’re currently accompanied by two trumpets and two trombones.
Ok, sounds like fun. Where do I sign up?
Someone definitely thought this through. I bet there’s a spreadsheet and everything.
Becoming a member of The Glen Rock Carolers Association is just about the hottest ticket in town. There are only 50 places for ‘Caped Members’, and the last one was admitted in 2014. An orderly queue of 26 ‘Associate Members’, who have been learning their parts as apprentices to more senior singers while awaiting an opening, has formed out of the door, and behind them, the ‘Prospects’ are chomping at the bit. After a ‘Caped Member’ member has completed 50 years of service, he earns life membership and is allowed to continue singing while simultaneously opening up his place for a new Caped Member. Someone definitely thought this through. I bet there’s a spreadsheet and everything.
The homesick youngsters persuaded Mark and James Heathcote to partake in a festive tradition from across the pond, and so carolling began in Glen Rock
Obviously, over the years, the faces have changed, but the spirit of Christmas Eve remains the same. The town has changed, too. In 1848, the Heathcotes and George Shaw visited every house – all seven of them. They were probably home in time to catch Father Christmas snacking on a mincemeat pie. In 2021, the men will sing for about six hours as they walk a figure-of-eight through the main streets, stopping to sing at key locations, and popping inside for 20 minutes every few hours to warm up.
The repertoire, though, remains relatively static. From four carols in 1848, to their current repertoire of just 15 songs (including the original four), musical evolution has been somewhat glacial. The two most recent additions – ‘Raise, Christians, Raise’ and ‘Awake, Arise Good Christians’ – commemorate visits to The Festival of Village Carols in England. The first of those, added after the 2002 trip, celebrated the relinking of two long-separated-but-still-related traditions: the Sheffield Carols and the Glen Rock Carolers. When I asked the Carolers’ Director, Darryl J. Engler, about the pressures of choosing a new carol to join the ranks, he reflected on this as a momentous event in the Carolers’ long history: “The song symbolizes our first visit to England after an absence of 150 years. It amazes us that after all those years, our songs still sound and feel like yours.”
So, there you have it. A whistlestop tour of this quaint English-esque Christmas tradition, which, when you think about it, has been happening across the pond every single time you’ve woken up on Christmas morning (unless we have any readers who are older than 174?!). I always think of them, with snow underfoot and under a starry Pennsylvanian sky, as I drink my first cup of tea by the light of the Christmas tree on Christmas morning. This year, perhaps you will, too.
If we’ve piqued your interest and you’d like to know more about the Carolers, we recommend their website – glenrockcarolers.org – which presents an incredibly thorough history and exploration of the tradition. Rumour has it that they’ll be back in the UK in 2022.
Thank you for your beautiful story of my Christmas. I am 63, was born in Glen Rock, and can’t imagine Christmas any other way. We moved away when I was only 9, but I’ve missed just a very few of those precious first notes of “Christians, Awake! Salute the happy morn …” My brothers and nephew are members (Englers) and both brothers are now life members as of this year!
How wonderful, Wendy. Thank you for sharing your own experience of Christmas in Glen Rock. And life membership! What an achievement. Congratulations to them both.
Thank you for sharing the story. William Heathcote’s sister Hannah is my 4th great grandmother and Mark Radcliffe is my third great uncle. It’s great reading about my family history.