Fifty years ago, Maggie Carttar and her young family said: "Oh, what the heck. Let's just go sing."
Now, in Grandma Maggie's bustling house on New Hampshire Street, three generations of Carttars - along with dozens of other friends and family and family of friends - are getting ready to board a chartered bus to take their Christmas songs to the front doors of Lawrence homes again.
"We thought it would be fun to go caroling," Maggie Carttar says. "And then ... it just evolved."
This year, for the 50th anniversary of the Carttar family's caroling, the crowd here is thick. On a little couch in the back of her house, Carttar sits and tries to explain what happened to the little caroling group they started with, just a few years after the family moved to Lawrence.
"It just kind of grows," she says, her hands moving like they're playing a piano in the air.
Oh, she remembers lots of different Christmases spent singing for others. There was the year of the blizzard, she recalls, and the year they took candles out caroling with them.
"Honest-to-gosh candles we were carrying," she exclaims, her red and green earrings jangling as she laughs.
But now, her six adult children all have spouses and children of their own. Plus, the tradition has grown to friends and their families. They planned for about 80 folks this year alone.
So they rent a bus and carol only at homes of close friends.
"It's so hard to plan logistically," says Paul Carttar, Maggie's son. "We don't have time to go to people who aren't home."
A few minutes later, the bus, on loan from Lawrence Bus Co., pulls up to the curb outside the house. The family lines up outside, waits patiently while children chase one another in circles and older folks use canes to navigate the stairs down to the street.
In minutes, the bus' brown benches are filled, with some bobbing heads covered in red Santa hats or stuffed reindeer antlers.
Above the din of laughs and chatter, the Carttar family tries to keep everyone organized. For the most part, it works. People file in, take seats, grab ahold of ceiling bars and gather their balance in the aisle.
One woman near the front yells out, "Did anyone happen to see if all my kids got on?"
Another woman a few seats down answers.
"Yes," she says, confident. "I think so."
The double doors hiss closed, and the bus pulls away.
Down the road, on the way to the first house, family friend Jonathan Andrews offers to lead a vocal warm-up session.
As the bus quiets, Andrews explains the first exercise, a high-to-low-to-high test that goes, "HaHaaHaHaaaaHaaaaHaHa."
The first try shakes rust off of some vocal cords; other folks are still chatting.
"Let's do it one more time," Andrews says.
The next time, by the third "Ha," the bus is ringing. Some of the voices bend and hold and do generally all of the right things.
"We've got a few ringers in the group," Paul Carttar admits.
Then the group, ringers and all, pull up to the first stop - the entrance of a cul-de-sac where former Woodlawn School principal Harold Segrist lives.
Segrist and his wife are longtime friends of the Carttar family. His first wife, in fact, was Steve Carttar's first-grade teacher. The family has been caroling there for years.
The next stop is Brandon Woods Retirement Community. There, Harriet Wilson has been waiting in the round foyer near an enormous Christmas tree for the songs the Carttar family has sung to her for years.
When the group walks in, Wilson seems surprised.
"It gets bigger every year," she says, eyes wide behind glasses.
The carolers gather around the tree and begin to sing.
Silent Night, they sing, Holy night.
Wilson sits in a chair at the back of the foyer, near the dark wood piano, and nods along with the song.
Slowly, other residents gather around, looking in from behind the carolers.
All is calm, all is bright.
One by one, along the angled railing above, folks put down cups of coffee and lean, looking down. Smiles wash over faces.
One word at a time, the carolers' voices rise higher and higher, past the silver ornaments on the foyer's towering tree, up past the folks now huddled around the upstairs railing, up higher and higher.
Sleep in heavenly peace, the carolers sing, Sleep in heavenly peace.