These Victorian-style CT carolers are keeping a holiday tradition alive

From street corners to Hallmark movies, the Connecticut Yuletide Carolers are making connections through song.

Photo of Daniel Figueroa IV
The Connecticut Yuletide Carolers perform on Sunday, Dec. 18, 2022.

The Connecticut Yuletide Carolers perform on Sunday, Dec. 18, 2022.

Daniel Figueroa IV/Hearst Connecticut Media

It’s been 10 years. But Sara Henry still recalls it clearly.

It was her second season with the Guilford-based Connecticut Yuletide Carolers. The plan was for the group, in their custom-made, Victorian-era outfits to sing carols and spread cheer throughout downtown New Haven.

But that day, Dec. 14, 2012, Connecticut and the nation was in state of sorrowful shock after a gunman murdered 20 children and six adults in the Sandy Hook shooting.

Henry almost didn’t make it out that evening. She wondered how her a capella quartet could spread holiday cheer in such a dark moment. But Henry laced her bonnet cap, grabbed her songbook and took to Chapel Street.

The Connecticut Yuletide Carolers perform on Sunday, Dec. 18, 2022.

The Connecticut Yuletide Carolers perform on Sunday, Dec. 18, 2022.

Daniel Figueroa IV/Hearst Connecticut Media

“We went out there and so many people told us, ‘You know, you made a difference. You touched us tonight when were all hurting.’ We committed and we made a difference” she said. “I realized that sometimes what we do is more important than I think it is. We helped a lot of people feel better that night when things were really bad.”

Moments like that, she said, have kept her singing with the group for more than a decade.

Henry was singing alto in a quartet at the Shops on Yale the weekend before Christmas. She was joined by Peter Robinson singing bass, a retired engineer; Sarah Prouty, a voice teacher singing soprano; and James DeMarco, an English-as-a-second-language teacher on tenor.

The group stopped in front of shops like L.L. Bean and Warby Parker to sing classics like “Jingle Bells” and mashed up carols like “Mr. Santa” sung to the tune of “Mr. Sandman.” Armed with nothing but the power of their diaphragms and an electronic pitch pipe, they battled muffler-less exhausts, a saxophonist and the bustle of holiday traffic for their piece of auditory landscape. Even the warning “beep-beep” of a crossing signal can be a challenge.

The Connecticut Yuletide Carolers perform on Sunday, Dec. 18, 2022.

The Connecticut Yuletide Carolers perform on Sunday, Dec. 18, 2022.

Daniel Figueroa IV/Hearst Connecticut Media

“I think we were in downtown Milford,” founder Michael Cartwright recalled. “We were on one of the street corners. As soon as we would start to sing, the crosswalk signal would start beeping. It’s either sing in that pitch or we have to wait.”

Cartwright and his wife, Lori Cartwright, founded the Connecticut Yuletide Carolers 17 years ago. They moved to the Nutmeg State from Delaware in 1999 where they’d been involved in some other organizations. But after a few years in Connecticut they missed the activity and started their company.

“We started with six singer and we did 12 performances that year,” Lori Cartwright said. “Four of those six original singers are still with the group.”

Now, the Cartwrights have about two dozen performers and can have five quartets performing on any given day. They hold auditions around Labor Day and rehearsals begin in October. Once Black Friday hits, the schedule is packed right up through Christmas Eve.

And you don’t have to be Michael Bublé to join. 

“It’s not necessarily the best singers (we look for),” Lori Cartwright said. “But somebody you can stand being with for three hours.”

The carolers are now sought after performers who often turn down gigs because of their busy schedule. But that would come as a shock to the actual Dickensian carolers they attempt to channel.

The Connecticut Yuletide Carolers perform on Sunday, Dec. 18, 2022.

The Connecticut Yuletide Carolers perform on Sunday, Dec. 18, 2022.

Daniel Figueroa IV/Hearst Connecticut Media

Like many modern traditions, caroling is a confluence of cultural moments coming together. Clarkson University professor Joseph Andriano told PBS in 2015 that caroling had its roots in a tradition spawned in the Middle Ages known as wassailing, named after the hearty, cider-like beverage called wassail. During the winter, usually around the charitable holiday giving season, farm workers (and eventually factory workers) would travel door-to-door, often imbibing along the way, singing songs to lords and owners until gifts, usually food or beverage, were bestowed.

Wassailing evolved into “luck visits” and songs took on a formulaic structure.

“Many songs of this luck-visit tradition seem to follow these three phases of blessing; demand for payment; followed finally by some sort of implicit threat,” Andriano told PBS.” Not dissimilar to our trick-or-treating.”

Some luck-visit songs still survive. “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” he said, is one. It starts with the blessing, then shifts into a demand for figgy pudding before declaring singers will not leave until they get it. That, Andriano said, was to be taken literally.

The Connecticut Yuletide Carolers perform on Sunday, Dec. 18, 2022.

The Connecticut Yuletide Carolers perform on Sunday, Dec. 18, 2022.

Daniel Figueroa IV/Hearst Connecticut Media

Other songs, like the “Gloucestershire Wassail” even specify that the singers want only the best, or there will be consequences. But it’s not pudding they're asking for, it’s beer.

“Come, butler, come fill us a bowl of the best/And we hope that your soul in heaven may rest, But if you do draw us a bowl of the small/Then down shall go butler, bowl and all,” the song goes.

The Yuletide Carolers of today don’t make demands so much as they are in demand. The Cartwrights said the last 17 years have taken them all across the state and into two Hallmark Christmas movies: “One Royal Holiday” and “Next Stop, Christmas.”

But it’s the connections made the people they sing for that keeps them braving cold and competing cantors. Like a woman who hired the group to sing for her mother who has Alzheimer’s Disease, even if the performance wouldn’t be remembered for long.

“She says, ‘I do a big thing every Christmas for my mother. She’s probably not going to remember it, but I just want to be there,’” Michael Cartwright said. “Mom was singing, waiving, having a great time. It was one of those things. This is why you do it. Just to give something like that — a heartfelt, good feeling. That’s really why we keep doing this.”