So far this year, we have had two lots of carol-singer substitutes call.
I don't know whether the idea of "carol-singers" is widely understood beyond England. Basically, as I understand it, people used to travel from house to house during evenings in the run up to Christmas. They would sing a carol (all of one - perhaps six or seven verses) then perhaps some verses from "We wish you a merry Christmas" - and for their time, they would be rewarded with something warming - perhaps (in the words of "We wish you a merry Christmas") some "Figgy Pudding".
The first lot of "carol singers" we have had are the Rotary Club. They have a kind of truck thing which has a mock up of Father Christmas's sleigh on the back. In addition to this, they have a PA system, through which they play recordings of a choir singing Christmas carols. The "outriders" (the Rotarians hunt in packs) go and knock on doors to collect the money, and point out to any children who may be resident that Father Christmas is afoot (in return for a donation to Rotary funds from the parents). The children are then supposed to look in wide-eyed wonder at the sight of the traditional Father Christmas accompanied by the sound of angelic trebles singing "I saw three ships come sailing in" or some other such carol that is now only sung on Christmas Carol CD's.
I have suggested to them in the past that I would be more willing to give them money if they actually sang themselves. To which their response was "Oh, no, you don't want to hear me singing." What I should have said was, "Yes, but that's not quite the point with carol singing." But I lost my nerve, and just coughed up my pound. There's a limit to what you can do to restore traditional Christmas values on your own.
The second lot of "carol singers" called last night. At about 9pm, we had a knock on the door - most people don't even bother opening the door at that time of night, I suspect. As soon as the door had started to open, I was regaled to five people (the oldest can't have been more than 17) singing "We wish you a merry Christmas" - just the chorus, somewhat out of tune - and then they lapsed into embarrassed, smiley silence, a small plastic tub with coins in held self-consciously in front of them. "Well done," I said, "are you collecting for charity, or just yourselves?" "For ourselves," said the oldest one, "and" - perhaps feeling that this sounded rather un-Christmassy, pointing at a young lad who must have been under 10 - "for the little one, so he can buy a present for his parents." "Yeah, right," I thought - and coughed up my pound. "Nice work if you can get it," I said to Liz after they had gone. "A pound for twelve seconds singing." "Would you have paid them two pounds if it had been six seconds?" she asked.