Christmas carolers share the holiday spirit

The Dickens Carolers of Seattle bring a Victorian-Era flavor to the holiday.

CBS News

It's never too early to develop a love for the Christmas carol. Lee Cowan reports our Cover Story:

There are people who love Christmas, and then there are people who REALLY LOVE Christmas. Greg and Jen Kefalas are in the REALLY LOVE category.

Greg was born on Christmas Eve.

"You remember loves lost, loves had, loves gained," he said. "It's a time of happiness and a time of recollection."

When he was younger he would spend his merry birthdays walking door-to-door singing Christmas carols for his neighbors.

Did he get a good response? "We got a great response, but people were confused," he laughed. "They're like, 'Why are you caroling? Are you asking for money?' 'No, we're just singing!'"

And he never grew out of it.

Greg is now a professional Christmas caroler. He and his wife Jen operate three performance groups in New York City. In fact, the Holiday Singers just cut their first studio album, "Shine," featuring such standards as "Let It Snow," "Sleigh Ride," "Silent Night," and "Have a Very Merry Christmas."

It may look all "holly and jolly," but the life of a wandering wassailer is rarely easy. They often get the cold shoulder -- and not just from Jack Frost.

To some passers-by, Christmas carols are like visiting relatives: They're happy to see them at first, but soon they wear on your nerves.

Greg, however, is convinced his unique tidings of comfort and joy can turn even the Grinch's ear.

"Sometimes we want to take people out of that moment, take them to back to their childhood," he told Cowan. "Take them back somewhere inside of themselves and connect with them that way. That's what we go for."

The season is short, and rehearsals are long -- and they all hold full-time jobs to boot.

With nearly 100 complex arrangements the carolers have to learn and memorize, they begin rehearsals in July.

"I mean, it's stressful," said Jen Kefalas. "It's not, you know, working-in-a-mine stressful, but it is stressful!"

"We wish you a Merry Christmas,
We wish you a Merry Christmas..."

Caroling originally had nothing to do with Christmas. In fact during, the Middle Ages, people would sing door-to-door to celebrate other big feast days -- May Day, or even Halloween.

By the Victorian era, however, the tradition of carolers being given Christmas treats in exchange for singing to their wealthy neighbors was firmly in place -- hence the famous lyric: "Bring us some figgy pudding."

These days, Kathy Schelleng doesn't expect pudding -- just smiles. Each year she and a few friends trudge through their neighborhood in Plymouth, Mass., offering their fa-la-lahs to anyone who answers the door.

"They're almost always surprised to see somebody at their door," she said. "It gets us in the mood to celebrate."

Carols are sung the world over, although not always in the same way. In Greece children go door-to-door banging triangles.

In Australia, one version of the carol "12 Days of Christmas" doesn't begin with a partridge in a pear tree; it begins with a "Kookaburra in a Gum Tree."

For many Christians, by the way, "The 12th day of Christmas" lands on January 6th -- also called Three Kings Day -- and that, too, is celebrated, especially in Latin America, where it's accompanied with a holiday cake.

"Oh Christmas Tree, oh Christmas Tree, ..."

But it's the Charles Dickens notion of caroling that most us think about -- which explains why we often see carolers donning their gay apparel from the Victorian Era.

"I hate to say it, but I like to think we're very decorative," laughed Nathan Rodda, co-owner of the Dickens Carolers in Seattle.

He has nearly a dozen quartets wandering the streets, all Victorian to the core.

"We get about 250 applications every year," he told Cowan, "for maybe 10 openings."

"Silent night, holy night ..."

Even in Seattle's bustling Pike Place Market, they can bring a little heavenly peace. "We measure our success by how often we make people cry," said Rodda. "And it happens all the time, in the most public of places."