Members for life: Glen Rock Carolers carry 170-year tradition
If Paul W. Shepperd Jr. sings at least one song with the Glen Rock Carolers this Christmas eve, he will be its longest-serving member.
He's tied with his neighbor on Walnut Street, Mark Kroh, who sang 75 years with the group before he died. The second longest-serving member is Kroh's brother, who sang 73 years.
They are continuing a long tradition that started in 1848 when five men who had moved from England — Mark Radcliff, Charles Heathcoate, George Shaw, Mark Heathcote and James Heathcote — serenaded Glen Rock residents with carols from their hometowns of Cheshire, Derbyshire and Yorkshire.
Choirs of men used to sing in the balconies of churches before the Church of England "kicked them out" in the 1860s and replaced them with more trained, boys' choirs, which sang in Latin, said Darryl Engler, caroler director and a member for 47 years.
"Rather than losing their form of music, they took it to the pubs," Engler said, but he added that there were still a few communities that would sing outside — and they continue this tradition today.
The Glen Rock Carolers are celebrating the group's 170th year of singing on Christmas from midnight to dawn They counted 1848 as their first year, so they have had 169 years of the tradition.
Members for life: It's an elite group of men, with 50 coveted spots for "caped" members, who have the honor of wearing the official caroler uniforms passed down since 1972 — a cape made in New York from imported wool from Scotland, scarves knitted by families in town, top hats and canes.
"Mine looks like the day I got it in 1972," Engler said. "They look like the Charles Dickens characters."
But there are many more members in the group than the 50.
"In modern society, people live longer," Engler said. So since 2000, members who had served 50 years or more were given the status of life members.
New members are called associate members, and they sing with the group every year, apprenticing with a caped member to learn the songs and oral history of the group. They are considered to be on a waiting list for an open caped-member spot.
"Our youngest is 11 years old, " Engler said, and he is returning for his third year. Nicholas Emig is in the group with his father, John Emig, which Engler said is common. Many family members end up joining.
But Engler said not to believe the myths that people have to be a relative or from Glen Rock to join. Anyone is welcome, and those interested can even follow along as an audience member before deciding whether to join.
A caped member spot only opens when one of the current singers retires, dies or asks to be put on the inactive list because of health concerns or having moved away.
"The record is 14 years," Engler said of waiting for a spot to open.
At the carolers' last meeting of the year on Sunday, Dec. 17, three associate members will be added, and caped member Philip R Spies, who died this year after singing for 41 years, will be replaced by someone near the top of the associate list, as voted by the music committee.
This year: The party of carolers and community members will be led by the Peanut Man, who will act as the "town crier," giving out peanuts and knocking on doors to announce the carolers' arrival.
Young members will carry lanterns, and the group, followed by about 1,500 to 2,000 at the start of their journey, will embark on their route — this year following Manchester, Hanover, Baltimore and Church (which starts out on Main) streets.
"All four streets are wall-to-wall people," Engler said, adding that it feels like looking at Time Square in New York City.
It's based around the town's only signal light, which brings the four streets together, and the order varies each year so they are not hitting the same houses at the same time.
They follow a figure eight for the 4- to 5-mile route, and it takes them seven hours because they stop roughly 130 times to sing.
Carolers stop at streetlights or where they see people gathered on porches. At members' homes, they can request their favorite song and walk ahead to stand with their families as the group sings.
Many people in the community have open houses all night long, including Engler's wife and daughter, who welcome the carolers and others walking with them to "warm up with barbecue and punch," he said.
The group makes three official stops at local community groups or family homes to recharge for about 20 minutes at a time.
Each of the four streets is quite hilly, Engler said, so some of the older members will take a car to the top of the hill and wait for the group.
The group never changes its traditional songs but has added several over the years.
"We went over to Sheffield, England, and were out-of-town guest carolers in 2002," Engler said. "We brought back a song and added it to our repertoire." It was a song that was sung outside in English towns, following their own traditions, he said.
Only about 20 to 25 people stay with the group the duration of the night, but the crowd grows again as they near their final destination: the community Christmas tree and monument dedicated to the original five members.
Engler said they aim to end at 7 a.m., but it depends on the weather.
"We love it to be cold and still," he said. "Twenty degrees and no wind."