Two of my writer friends, Andrea Stewart and Tina Gower, have written blog posts just recently that really spoke to me. They are both hugely talented, good people, and I thought the posts were incredibly brave. You can find them at the following links, and I recommend reading them to understand why I felt like I could, and should, share my own experience–The Day I Was Accidentally Sexist, and The Day I Was Accidentally Racist.
For several years, I worked as a professional Christmas caroler. I dressed up in Victorian clothes and, with my quartet, we were hired to perform at all sorts of different events throughout the city. We sang at the airport, home parties, the shopping mall, corporate events. We even sang the national anthem at the opening game of our local hockey team’s season. This was the one job I ever had that always seemed to make people happy. Especially in the airport, where everyone is stressed and tired, and the magical night at Ronald McDonald House, when it began to snow while we were singing Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
The night in question, we had been hired to carol in a restaurant, which we did for our scheduled time, and then we had a period of time before we needed to arrive at our next gig, so instead of just leaving like we normally would, we took the opportunity to carol in the bar for a while. As we were singing, a customer came over to us, pointed to a private party in a separate room, and whispered, in a conspiratorial way, “The people in that party heard you out here, and want you come and sing for them.” We still had time, so we thought, great! Let’s go spread holiday cheer!
We caroled into the room. People watched us. Our spokesperson paused at the end of the song to ask if anybody had any requests. An elderly gentleman said something along the lines of, “Maybe that one about old men?”
Not quite sure which one he meant, I took a guess and selected “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen.” The lyrics, for those who don’t know it, go, “God rest ye, merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay. Remember Christ, Our Savior, was born on Christmas Day, to save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray . . . ”
We finished the song, smiled, and caroled our way out back to the bar. Not long after, a restaurant employee came over to us and said, “That was a Hannukah party, and they were very offended.”
My body went cold. I couldn’t feel my hands, even inside the warm muff I carried as part of my costume. I started shaking.
People who know me know that I go out of my way at every opportunity to be absolutely certain that I am not giving offense. I watch my words. I bite my tongue very often when I disagree with someone. I will walk away from anything that smacks of conflict. And now I had offended an entire room full of people enjoying a holiday party. Probably fifty people think that I am an aggressive religious bigot and there’s nothing I can do to change that. I desperately wish I would have chosen any of many other songs. There are plenty of secular holiday songs. We even had Hannukah songs in our repertoire that we would have happily sung, had we any idea!
I couldn’t sleep that night. I still get quivery in the middle when I think about it, despite the fact that it happened over fifteen (!) years ago. I try to tell myself it wasn’t my fault. It was the customer who sent us in there, clearly intentionally, as some sort of a joke. But it wasn’t a joke. It was using four people, who wanted nothing more than to make people happy, as a weapon, and that bothers me, too. How could anyone think that was all right?
I know it probably isn’t equivalent, but I’ve wondered if maybe the discomfort that I felt in the aftermath of that night might resemble what those people might have felt while it was happening. As a person who, aside from being female, is in a position of every social privilege, I have not experienced a lot of prejudice. This one taste of what it might be like from the other side was eye-opening.
I’m not sure what the take-away here is, but honestly just sharing about it feels like a good first step, despite the nervous tingles in my fingertips as I type. Maybe it’s just this–we’re all people. We all deserve to be treated with respect. And sometimes we step on social land mines. We just have to pick ourselves up and move on, and hopefully learn something in the process.
And to anyone who might have been there on that night so very long ago, I say what I couldn’t say then. I’m sorry.