This week, I have to reckon with Gladys. Three of my dearest friends and I are gathering for a Christmas party at Chez Kelly, and the e-mails have been flying fast and furious as we coordinate the affair. Bernice is decorating: fresh pine sprigs and cranberries, just like her East Coast childhood. "Crisp colors, crisp scent," she declares. Erica is "definitely making sage-and-sausage stuffing." Shawn is excited to introduce "a French white that's perfect with turkey" and a cranberry punch recipe to match the décor. I was looking for live music -- guitar, maybe. I mean, they have Christmas in Spain, too. But Bernice reminded me that she has a mother-in-law (Gladys) who's a crooner. "And not the good kind. She's loud and she's tone-deaf, and she will insist on caroling after a couple glasses of wine." I pictured her pestering the guitarist for "Deck the Halls," and started dialing around for professional carolers. Maybe I could head Gladys off at the pass.
Judy Ames of the Kaleidoscope Carolers (619-787-6991; starstruckpro.com/kaleidoscope_carolers.htm ) has been booking events "for 15 years now." At Christmastime, "I have about 25 people, and they perform in quartets. The singers are all of the more mature type. Some have been in professional bands, some in the Master Chorale and Opera Chorus, some have done a lot of a cappella group work. We work from books, and everyone reads music very well. We've got about 50 to 70 songs in our repertoire, religious and nonreligious."
Like many carolers, the Kaleidoscopes go in for period costumes -- "turn-of-the-century type. The men wear top hats; the women wear big skirts and carry muffs. It's very colorful."
They've done casinos and shopping centers and will be spending Wednesday through Saturday nights this December at the Torrey Pines Lodge, but they're happy to work private venues. "I have a family in La Jolla; I've done their Christmas for eight years now. We would go to the nursing home where the lady of the family's brother was, and we'd sing there. We can stroll and sing or perform on microphones. And we can lead a singalong." (Gladys would be so happy.) The group has a two-hour minimum, and the price starts at $350 for two hours.
Jennifer Kreml, of the 11-member Cheshire Singers (760-803-7268; www.cheshiresingers.com ), uses five voices instead of four. She tells me that, unlike madrigals, in which each part sings a melody that interweaves with the others, "in caroling, there's a melody, and then everyone else fills in behind the melody. The melody is very strong, so we have two sopranos doing that." The alto, tenor, and bass fill in behind. "We do an arrangement of 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas' that is just beautiful. One that's a little bit older is 'O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.' If there are a lot of kids, we'll gather them together to shake the bells for 'Jingle Bells.'"
The Cheshires offer two options for dress. "The City of Carlsbad is having a breakfast for their employees, and we'll be wearing formal blacks and tuxedoes. We'll hand out a little trifle with the words to five Christmas songs, and we'll do a singalong." Option two is "authentic Elizabethan nobility costumes. We wear corsets and farthingails -- those big hoopy things that go under your skirt. The men don't wear any special undergarments. Everything is hook-and-eye; everything is handmade. They're worth anywhere between $1,000 and $3,000 , and it takes an hour and a half to get into them. But it really makes such a visual impact. We can also adopt an Elizabethan persona and say things like, 'Good day, my lords and ladies. Welcome!'" (They'll be in costume every night from December 12 to 24 at Aviara Four Seasons from 6 to 8 p.m.)
The Cheshire Singers, in costume, charge $300 an hour, with a two-hour minimum. (The price goes down for additional hours.) For black formal attire, the price ranges between $250 and $300 per hour.
Julie Golden has been with the Westminster Carolers (619-692-9219; westminstercarolers.info) since their founding in 1989. Now, "we have 16 wonderful carolers" performing in quartets. "We sing about 80 songs; we do the traditional four-part harmony, and we also have some vocal jazz arrangements that I don't think anybody else has for 'Let It Snow,' 'Frosty the Snowman,' and 'The Christmas Waltz.' Vocal jazz is more like the Manhattan Transfer. Not so barbershoppy, but fun to listen to."
Golden describes the group's period attire as "Dickensian. The guys wear black, with pinstriped capes. Their vests and ascots are either forest green or burgundy, and they have stovepipe hats. The girls wear full-length skirts -- also forest green or burgundy -- and short, black capes and bonnets."
Their regular haunt is the Hotel Del Coronado, "but we do corporate events and private parties as well. We've sung for groups of 25 to up through the hundreds. I just booked a repeat job from last year at a lovely Mission Hills home. We'll stand on the staircase and sing and then sing in front of the fireplace. After that, we'll stroll around and take requests from the guests." The price for the Westminster Carolers is $350 for one hour, $450 for two, and $550 for three.
Finally, I spoke with Janet Hammer of the Full Measure Carolers (619-583-6391; fullmeasurecarolers.com ). "We've been together for 17 years, and we're the biggest caroling company in Southern California. We've got 16 quartets and over 100 songs on our list. We offer a variety of styles: the Full Measure Carolers wear Dickensian costumes. We also have a Dickensian handbell quartet that sings and plays a set of two-octave handbells. The Rockin' Cranberries wear poodle-type skirts but with snowflakes instead of poodles. Their sound is jazzier. All three styles can be seen at Sea World through December and at various Westfield shopping centers, but we also do lots of private parties. We do everything from knocking on the door and singing, to singing to guests as they arrive, to singing inside with full audience attention, to leading singalongs." Prices depend on the details of the event; please call to arrange.