NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - The air near the train station last night, Dec. 19, was frigid and biting. Most of the people who usually ask for spare change outside had chosen to forego the cold and, consequently, the cash.
But those who approached the station around 7 p.m. could hear a soft, melodic duet beneath the steady rumble of automobiles and car horns on Albany Street. The music came from Rosemarie and Mark Strawn, a married couple who had taken to the streets of New Brunswick to sing Christmas carols.
There was a time when people singing songs like “Silent Night,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Deck the Halls” to passing strangers might not make the news. Now, however, Christmas carolers have become something of an artifact or an invention of nostalgic holiday films.
The Strawns saw the tradition fading and thought, why not bring it back to New Brunswick?
“We think that caroling is a dead art these days,” Rosemarie, 54, said. “We want to go back to the point of Christmas, which is to be cheerful, bring cheer to others and to recognize those who are less fortunate.”
And that’s how they found themselves wearing sturdy winter coats and gloves, standing outside the train station amid temperatures well below freezing. Rosemarie wore a red-and-white Santa hat, while Mark, 58, donned a fuzzy Mets cap.
They said they also planned to march through downtown New Brunswick tonight, singing their way from the food kitchen Elijah’s Promise to the men’s shelter Ozonam Inn and over to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting before returning to the train station.
In addition to the music, the couple brought wooly socks to distribute to the city’s homeless and poor. As members of the Christian Liquid Church in Edison, the Strawns believe the holiday season is less about landing the best Black Friday deals and more about helping others.
“We have a nice, comfy bed where we get to warm up with an electric blanket, fluffy pillows and a comforter,” Rosemarie said. “A lot of people are just sleeping out in the streets.”
The Strawns, who have been married for 21 years and live in Piscataway, enthusiastically sang and raised their arms on Monday night as commuters walked past. Rosemarie shook a small, bronze bell, almost violently, smiling and dancing.
One young man stopped to ask them what they were doing. Christmas caroling, it seemed, had grown rare enough to elicit genuine confusion.
Perhaps that’s due to social media’s grip on season’s greetings. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter connect people during the holidays, allowing them to share photographs and virtual cards.
But the Strawns said the convenience can’t match caroling and laughing with people who would otherwise remain strangers.
“I can give you a hug. I can smile with you,” Rosemarie said. “An emoji is just little pixels; here, you can see my face, my eyes and the human connection.”
Rosemarie and Mark watched five ambulances zoom by last night. Each time, they prayed for whomever was, or would soon be, inside.
They also prayed for the homeless, the better-off commuters and anyone who took them up on the offer.
A song or a prayer might seem small to some, they said, but this time of year—and in this cold—a kind gesture and some joy shared with the down and out isn’t a bad thing.
“You get a lot more back than what you give out,” Mark said before breaking off into a rendition of “Silver Bells.”