LONDON – Last Thursday night, many in Britain were worrying about the Omicron version of the coronavirus, and whether the pandemic was going to disrupt Christmas plans for the second year in a row.
The country had broken a record for new daily cases of the virus and Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged the public to “think carefully” before attending Christmas parties.
But once in South London, there was another immediate problem for the three carol singers standing outside Leadbelly: a lack of tenor.
Zoey Bonner, 41, a soprano and co-organizer of a caroling pub crawl to raise money for a homeless charity, explained that the lack of male voices was “always” an issue for singers and carol singers.
Then 24-year-old Peter Coleman walked towards the group across the square in front of the bar. “Houston, we have a man!” Introducing himself, he said.
Within minutes, the four singers began to perform an intricately harmonized rendition of “Deck the Halls” on a London night. When they hit the chorus, a group of nearby drinkers pushed themselves out of their chairs to see what on earth was going on.
This winter, it seemed that attitudes had changed, at least among British lawmakers. On 8 December, when Boris Johnson announced that masks would again become mandatory in most indoor public places in England, in response to the Omicron version, he said singers were exempt. (A government spokesman later clarified that this was not meant to imply that people could sing while shopping and avoid wearing masks in grocery stores.)
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At Thursday’s Caroling Pub Crawl, the event’s other organizer, Meg McClure, said she felt there was risk in the event – it felt like “caroling on edge.” But every singer had a rapid antigen test before participating, she said, and the group decided to perform outside if any of the pubs they visited were too busy.
Furthermore, she said, there was a chance the singers would only be there for a handful of people, as many Londoners were deciding to stay home. “I called all the pubs earlier to make sure we could come,” McClure said. “One actually said to me, ‘I’m not sure we’re going to love anyone — but you’re welcome.'”
When the group reached their first stop – The Salt Quay, a gastro pub overlooking the River Thames – it looked like the prophecy might be coming true. There were only 11 drinkers in the vast space, including three young men watching soccer on their phones. The group sang three carols with “O Come, All Ye Faithful” to thunderous applause, but some charity.
At the next pub, The Brunel, it looked like things could be even worse. When the carols arrived, the bizarre venue had only five customers, two of them intoxicated. But as soon as the group started singing – now enhanced by another male singer who arrived late – they caught the attention of their audience.
One of the pub’s custodians, 77-year-old George Parrin, suffered a heart attack when the voices became louder. “Listen to these harmonies!” he shouted to a friend. The friend turned him back.
The two women moved closer to the singers and were drawn to the music, and many passersby looked surprised but happy to see the group. Additional coins and bills were soon landing in red collection tins.
Molly Thomson, 26, said she had originally planned to go to a concert by rapper Little Sims, but decided not to go because she was worried about catching the virus. “So it’s amazing,” she said. “It’s the next best thing.”
For professional singers in the group, like Bonner, the past few weeks were the busiest since the pandemic began. This month, she performed at 12 carol services and concerts, and had a regular gig singing Christmas music while afternoon tea was served at an upmarket London hotel. He said after a year’s struggle to earn a living, those jobs could not be more welcome, though he feared new public health restrictions could soon dry up work again.
A few hours later, the revolving chorus arrived at the final pub: the Mayflower, named after the ship that took the Pilgrims in 1620 to what is now the United States. The group was now eight members strong – consisting of four men. They stood on the roof of the pub, overlooking the Thames, and sang a raucous “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and the haunting “Coventry Carol”.
When they came to “Silent Night,” one of the audiences, 32-year-old Claire Phillips, turned to a friend and said, “It was my grandmother’s favorite Carol,” then pulled closer to give her a hug.
Later, the carolers gave a final performance on the cobbled streets outside the pub. People flocked to the windows of nearby apartments to listen, and customers drinking outside grabbed their phones to record the performance. Some even dared to join in.
Helen Birkenshaw, a digital producer in her 40s, was one of those people singing. “These people appeared out of nowhere,” she said. “It was like a little Christmas magic.”