171 years and counting for a Glen Rock Christmas tradition
For 47 years, Darryl Engler has spent Christmas Eve outside.
On Monday, Dec. 24, Engler will once again travel the streets of Glen Rock from midnight till dawn singing Old English carols, no matter how cold the night might be.
Perhaps the traditional "Dickens-style" cape and top hat Engler don help shield him from the cold, but he attributes his warmth to something stronger than outerwear — adrenaline.
"I've never been cold on Christmas," he said. "Once midnight gets here and you're out on your route, it just sort of flows very easily."
Engler is one of 50 caped members of the Glen Rock Carolers. He's been directing the group for 35 years.
Each year on Christmas Eve, the group carols throughout the borough from midnight until sunrise.
While Engler's nearly five decades of caroling may seem like a lot, he's not even close to the group's longest-serving member.
He's beat by nearly three decades by Paul Shepperd, who became the longest-serving member last year when he sang for his 76th Christmas Eve. Engler said he expects Shepperd, who is "alive and well," to come out and beat his own record this year.
In total there are 11 members who have served longer than Engler. Those 11 are lifetime members, denoting the fact that they've been caroling for at least 50 years.
Beginnings: The Glen Rock tradition dates back far beyond any of the group's current members to 1848. This will be the 171st year that the group fills the town with Old English carols all night long.
The Glen Rock Carolers began with five homesick men who had just come over from England, Engler said. From there, membership grew and the route got longer, but the tradition has always remained "reminiscent of what happened back in the first year," he said.
While no blood relatives of the original five remain current members, there have been 16 descendants of original member Mark Radcliff's foster son, Squire Bamforth, Engler said.
Many of Bamforth's descendants are still members, including Loren Kroh, who along with Engler is approaching lifetime membership.
In 2020, Engler, Kroh and Tony Schuchart will become lifetime members.
"My dad was active on the streets for 75 years, and you know you really don't have a choice then," Kroh said. "It's in your blood."
Bamforth was Kroh's great great uncle.
Associate members: Kroh said he would tag along and follow on the streets growing up but was an "older new guy" when he became an associate member at 24. He became a caped member the next year, he said.
The group had been limited to 50 caped members, but in 2000 the bylaws were changed to create lifetime membership for those who served more than 50 years to allow room for new caped members.
The new caped members are chosen from a list of associate members, "affectionately called the waiting list," Engler said.
There are currently 31 associate members. The associate members accompany the caped members and learn the carols. Lifetime members also join in on Christmas Eve, although some may not be physically up to walking and singing for the full seven hours, Engler said.
"I think it's a goal of every singer to get to that (lifetime) mark, and up until a year ago my dad had the record for the most years," Kroh said. "I'm going to have to be 100 to tie him."
Christmas Eve: A group of about 70 will travel throughout Glen Rock, Engler said.
The men will convene, as they always have, at the traffic signal light at midnight.
"We say the signal, because there's only one," Engler said.
About 1,000 residents will likely come out at midnight to watch the carolers begin, Engler said. The audience typically dwindles closer to 100 around 3 or 4 a.m. and grows a bit again when the carolers finish at the town Christmas tree as the sun comes up, he said.
The route changes each year, alternating which of the four connecting streets — Manchester, Hanover, Baltimore and Church — will be the start. This year the group will begin on Hanover Street and make a figure-eight route around the town, Engler said.
As the director leading the group, Engler prepares by walking two to file miles of the route every day between Thanksgiving and Christmas, he said.
"We take some back roads, alleyways, we walk across certain peoples' yard and private steps that we have permission to go up and down," he said. "I want to make sure that I know in the daylight what it's supposed to look like and feel like, so when I'm leading the group in middle of the night I'm not in for any surprises."
Preparing: The group as a whole alsohas been prepping through indoor concerts leading up to the night of singing. The Glen Rock Carolers performed at area nursing homes and senior centers in November and December.
Right before they take to the streets, they'll perform one final indoor concert for the season at 10:45 p.m. inside the Zion Lutheran Church in Glen Rock. The show will last about an hour, Engler said.
From there, the members will get dressed up in their proper attire — woolen capes and top hats for the caped members and "black capes that look like Dracula" for the associates — before the clock strikes midnight and the men continue the 171-year tradition.
The moment about seven hours after they begin, as they sing their last song at sunrise, is a truly special experience, Kroh said.
"That bond you feel with people you won't see again for another 10 or 11 months, it's hard to describe," Kroh said. "This is not a choir, this is a tradition."