John and Leanne Sponsel's annual potluck and caroling party is an 11-year-old tradition in their corner of St. Paul's Como neighborhood. As Leanne remembers, there was a huge herd of kids when it started. Over the years, attendance has fluctuated and the event has become increasingly casual.
"We don't even ask for RSVP's," she says. "Whoever shows, shows. We're always a little nervous no one will show up but someone always does."
The Sponsels originally threw the party to get to know their neighbors better. Now, everybody's on a first-name basis as they grab mini-flashlights and song sheets and assemble on the street. There's no rehearsal, not even a warm-up as they launch into their first carol.
"There's something very bonding about walking at night in the dark and singing together, no matter what you're singing. And you know, sometimes we'll go and there will hardly be anybody home," Sponsel says. "So we just sing as we walk around the block."
For the Sponsels, the caroling party is a celebration of their tight-knit community. Many in attendance can recall a time in their own lives when a Christmas carol serenade from the neighbors, or even unfamiliar-looking people, was a regular holiday occurrence. There's no study that proves the custom is dying out but to Sponsel, that's what it feels like.
"I haven't heard of anyone else doing it, " she says. "I remember years ago people at work would say 'Oh yeah, we're going caroling this weekend,' and I don't ever hear that anymore."
At the party, there was only speculation as to why the tradition isn't as prevalent. Some believe it's because more people live in developments with no sidewalks and houses that are too far apart to walk between. Others think it's a safety issue.
It could also be because people have become more sensitive to other cultures and religions. Not everybody embraces Christmas, which, after all, is a Christian holiday. Ann Ogawa, who's visiting her daughter from St. Louis, is a 68-year-old retired teacher. Ogawa says in public schools, certain carols aren't sung anymore.
"When we were growing up we could sing songs like 'Away in a Manger' and that type of thing in elementary school. Now you have sing songs like 'Jingle Bell Rock,'" she says. "You can't sing the religious Christmas songs in public schools. So that makes a difference."
At the St. Paul home of Michael Finley and Rachel Frazen, no one shies away from any Christmas carols. Their annual caroling party went indoors years ago. They've even hired a pianist to accompany them. It looks like the final scene of "It's a Wonderful Life" as the guests crowd into the parlor and belt out one carol after another.
Finley says in pre-party years he used to be relatively unmoved by Christmas music. Now he marvels at the way it has brought this disparate group of friends together.
"You go to a lot of parties and people don't know what to say and there's a lot of self-consciousness," he says. "But the songs... because we know them and they go back to an innocent time in our lives, there's a beauty that's agreeable to us, and we shrug and we sing together."
"Our world gets increasingly 'Wal-Martized' (apologies to Wal-Mart) and machine-like and numerical," he says. "And singing songs to one another about what could be our fondest hope and the things we have most in common--our desire for peace and love for and from one another--it just hits you in the gut."
It's a feeling Finley thinks people need to experience more often and one that keeps bringing people back to his caroling party, year after year.