After 40 years of fa-la-laing, a New York caroller worries it’s a dying art form

New York: He has been heckled, slapped by a drunk Wall Street banker and ignored altogether. He has performed in the cake section of a Bronx supermarket, serenaded commuters on frigid Manhattan subway platforms and sung from inside a claustrophobic display window at Bloomingdale’s.

Being a Christmas caroler in New York City is not for the fainthearted. Just ask Tom Andolora, a one-time elf at Macy’s Santaland, who has spent the past four decades leading the Dickens’ Victorian Carollers, which he founded in 1982.

Dickens Victorian Carolers, from left: Bretana Turkon, Tom Andolora, Rebecca Reres and Justin Tepper in 19th-century garb, in Manhattan, Dec. 22, 2022. Andolora, leader of the caroling group since he founded it in 1982, is calling it quits, and worries for the survival of carolling in New York.Credit:Vincent Tullo/The New York Times

Now, after a long career in which the Carollers have tried to spread a little comfort and joy to sick children at Harlem Hospital, provided the soundtrack for wedding proposals at Rockefeller Center and serenaded several first ladies at the White House, Andolora, 65, is carolling for the last time this Christmas, before turning in his bells and retiring.

“Carolling is a dying art form, and I don’t know if New York carolling will even be around in a decade,” he said, wistfully flipping through old photos of himself in his top hat and Victorian dress.

“People don’t want religion or tradition anymore,” he said. “I’ve given up my Christmases for 40 years. I’m done.”

The lingering effects of the coronavirus pandemic; holiday playlists that are now heavier on Mariah Carey than the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge; competition from younger upstarts who can rap Jingle Bells; and the closure of storied New York department stores like Lord & Taylor and Gimbels have made traditional Victorian-style carolling increasingly untenable.

Tom Andolora, founder of Dickens Victorian Carolers.Credit:Vincent Tullo/The New York Times

Andolora said the carolling business never fully recovered from the pandemic.

“We are still getting cancellations,” he said. “People are getting COVID or are afraid of getting it.”

Carols and carolling date back at least to the Middle Ages in England, when people would go “a-wassailing” — singing Christmas songs in the streets in return for a drink known as wassail, traditionally made with warmed ale, wine or cider blended with spices and honey.

In New York, the carolling tradition has existed for decades, with dozens of groups that take to the streets in all five boroughs, bringing a little Christmas cheer to grumpy department store shoppers, neighbourhood churches and soulless corporate parties, sometimes for as much as $US1,500 ($2232) an appearance.

An old photo of Tom Andolora from his days as an elf at Macy’s Santaland in Manhattan.Credit:Vincent Tullo/The New York Times

Andolora began his Christmastime career as an elf.

The year was 1981 and Andolora, the grandson of Italian immigrants, had recently arrived in Manhattan from Jamestown, New York, eager to make it big in show business like another Jamestown native, Lucille Ball. To begin with, however, he had to pay the rent, and was soon wearing a jaunty green hat, a green velvet tunic and red knee-high boots at Macy’s Santaland.

He quickly worked his way up from “Tree Elf” to “Cashier Elf” before graduating to “Photo Elf,” positioning sometimes screaming children for their photos with Santa. He taught acting at Brooklyn College for a time, and adapted and directed a Gothic play about the secret lives of the dead.

But inspired after hearing carolling groups he found wanting, Andolora, a powerful baritone, decided he could do better. And so the Dickens’ Victorian Carolers were born, a quartet clad in 19th-century garb — black top hats, lace collars, capes, hoop skirts and white gloves — which has drawn its ranks from cruise ships and Broadway productions like Show Boat.

It turns out that there is a crowded field of Dickensian carollers, apparently inspired by A Christmas Carol, and it has sometimes been difficult for the Dickens’ Victorian Carollers to stand out. There are the Dickens Carollers of Seattle, the Dickens Carollers of Kansas and the Original Dickens Carollers of Denver.

“I added the word ‘Victorian’ to our name to try and be different,” Andolora explained.

Looking back on his carolling days, Andolora said there had been mirth but also some Grinch-worthy moments, including a shopper who jeered, “That was terrible!”

On more than one occasion, a member of the group has belted out Twelve Days of Christmas with stentorian gusto when the carollers were supposed to be singing a soulful version of Silent Night.

Some years ago, at a private Christmas party in a Park Avenue penthouse, Andolora accidentally shoved a porcelain Buddha with his foot during a spirited rendition of Deck the Halls. He dislodged the statue’s arm, which fell with a thump to the floor.

“It was mortifying,” he said, adding that the host, a wealthy impresario, forgave him.

There have also been high points, like when a New York state police officer proposing to his fiancée hired the group to gather nearby and sing “Congratulations!” as he got down on one knee.

“He still sends me a Christmas card every year,” Andolora said.

The Carollers have also performed at the White House during four administrations. Andolora recalled that Nancy Reagan’s party was impeccably run, that the Clintons never showed up to take their photo, and that President Barack Obama teased the group about its oversize hoop skirts.

Whatever the challenges of carolling in the Big City, Andorola said he had no regrets.

“I have loved carolling since I was a kid,” he said. “It can bring people to tears.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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