This Christmas season, the East Aurora Village Singers made their usual caroling stops with bells, holiday vests and “We Need a Little Christmas” sheet music.
The group also had a growing appreciation for the tradition that took hold 34 years ago when the first store they visited kicked them out.
They were singing in the vestibule of a now-defunct discount department store in 1979 when the manager asked them to leave because they were getting in the way.
It was cold. They kept going.
They made their way up Main Street. More shopkeepers shooed them away from their doorways, saying pretty much the same thing. They were blocking customer traffic.
Then they got to Vidler’s.
Ed Vidler, one of the owners of the iconic 5 & 10, heard them sing and, delighted, invited them in.
“We sang by the bobby pins and all the hair accessories. From then on it became a tradition,” said Ellen Moomaw, one of the founding members of the Village Singers.
The tradition continues, with carolers now in their 60s, 70s and 80s . It is a singing sisterhood with a schedule that has mellowed into just a few Christmas season appearances – at the Roycroft Inn lobby brunch, in Vidler’s toy department and, on a recent cold night, in an Orchard Park nursing home.
It’s where Ed Vidler lives now and where the Village Singers make a special trip to sing to their old friend. There, by a reception desk, they celebrated their Christmas tradition with the man who helped create it.
Their songs about snow, bells, Santa and warm holiday feelings, sung in four-part harmony, wafted lightly through the hall as residents smiled, looked off in the distance and quietly sang along.
Vidler beamed from his wheelchair as the women, dressed in vests with embroidered snowflakes and green sequins, passed out bells to encourage jingling and singing along to “Deck the Halls” and “We Need a Little Christmas.”
“I’m thrilled to have them come all the way over here on a night like tonight,” Vidler said, thinking of how they first happened into his store. “I got lucky.”
The women, who met when it was more common for women to stay home to help raise their families, felt lucky, too.
First their children, then their grandchildren, have listened to their holiday routine, which starts with November rehearsals.
“When they were younger, that’s how they went to sleep,” said Moomaw, thinking back on years gone by.
“Those times are fleeting,” she said. “We realize what a wonderful thing we have.”
When the group started, members didn’t have a future plan. They met through another East Aurora tradition, now defunct: The Welcome Wagon. In the 1970s, women who had newly moved in were invited to Welcome Wagon luncheons that included small “trinkety” gifts from local businesses.
“It was a lovely little way to become part of the community,” Moomaw said.
At one lunch, there was a sing-along, and people were invited to ring bells along to a tune. Moomaw, who had sung in her college glee club, volunteered. It turned out the others who got up had been in glee clubs, too. They started meeting up to sing.
“I was very happy to begin another journey with music,” she said.
Then they decided it would be fun to go out caroling at Christmas. “We were just sort of singing,” Moomaw said, “not even knowing if we would continue singing.”
But then Vidler, charmed by the serendipitous store concert, befriended them and invited them back every year.
“He really liked the idea of an official East Aurora group,” Moomaw said. “We kind of weren’t even thinking of it on a grand scale like that … We were just kind of doing it for the fun of it. I think he saw the bigger picture.”
The singers became part of the Vidler’s store family. He promoted their appearance in his holiday ads. He gave them gift certificates so they could buy calico material and sew it into old-fashioned pinafores for a concert they used to do at the Millard Fillmore House Museum. He baked them loaves of his signature sourdough as presents at Christmas. One year, when Vidler’s wife was too sick to come, he called her at home and held out the phone so she could hear the performance.
As the years went by, the calico frocks have been retired and outgrown, and the lineup changed. One member died. Others moved away. New women joined the group of 10 that still includes five founders, including Moomaw. They have pared down their concerts, but the fundamental ones remain. Last week, they were by the back stairs near the toy department where the view from the rest of the store is good.
“That’s their normal spot,” said Don Vidler, son of Ed, who along with his sister is the third generation running the store.
He always likes their version of “The Night Before Christmas” for the sound-effect gadgets they pull from a basket – a whistle for when Santa calls for his reindeer and cymbals for when he comes down the chimney.
This is the busy time of year at Vidler’s, where staples like yarn and pens can be found along with the quirky – brownie pans with precut dividers and Buffalo-style Monopoly games.
“We’re thrilled that they continue to come back,” Don Vidler said. “Our doors will always be open for them.”
It’s fun, he said, to see customers look pleasantly surprised to hear the carolers, who sang this year looking kooky in “reader” glasses with little lights on the side from the stationery department.
“We just get more and more raucous,” Moomaw said.
When they flub a line, they interrupt themselves and start over. That’s what’s nice about the informal, casual, comfortable feeling that comes with singing together for so many years.
More benefits came to them as they met up in the lobby of the Fox Run retirement community. First a flurry of hellos and coats, hats and gloves tossed on chairs before they piled into a small elevator and headed to Ed Vidler’s floor.
Coming together to sing like this every year fills the season, said Joanie Long. “It feels warm and cozy.” It also sends a healthy dose of oxygen into the blood, said Rachelle Francis. “Singing’s very good for you.”
The singers arrived at the lobby desk, and Moomaw doled out jingle bells from the noisemaker basket to the small crowd in chairs by the wall. Ed Vidler was at the front looking expectant and pleased.
As everyone gets older and voices start to go, Moomaw wonders how they will sound each Christmas. This year, she’s been thinking, “Wow. We still have it.”
At Fox Run, their “Jingle Bells” was the best. As they sang, “Oh, what fun it is to ride in a one-horse open sleigh,” Moomaw could see that Ed and his neighbors were singing, too. No one was left out.
They were all together, singers and audience, shaking their bells and smiling.