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The Eagles Carolers

Jeremy Richards

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Cindy Simmons has nothing against Christmas carols.

"I love Christmas carols," she says, sitting in her North Seattle home. "I mean, the best choral music there is, is the Easter liturgy, but I would say that Christmas music comes in a close second."

In fact, Cindy grew up singing in her church choir. But she's also a professor of First Amendment law at the University of Washington. So when songs of mangers and miracles move beyond the homes and churches, Cindy gets a little uncomfortable.

"We have this problem in this country of majoritarianism," she says. "Sure we don't have an established state religion, but there's an awful lot of Christianity in public places at this time of year."

Cindy's not saying that public Christmas carols violate anyone's rights. She just wants a balance of the secular voice in a public space. She decided to "remind people that there's a secular sphere and a religious sphere," adding that "religion shouldn't take over the park, even one night a year."

The park she's referring to is Seattle's Green Lake Park. Once a year, the city sponsors an event called Pathways of Light. Volunteers line the lake's three-mile perimeter with paper lanterns, and choirs from different communities gather to sing carols for passersby.

But not Cindy and her friends. They come to Green Lake with a different songbook. Cindy, her friend Gretchen (who asked that we not use her last name), and Cindy's husband, John Gastil, sit in the living room and rehearse songs that capture the humanist consequence of existential crisis: "Desperado," they sing. "Why don't you come to your senses?"

Yes, the songs of the Eagles. Every year since 2001, Cindy, her husband John, and half a dozen friends have gathered to sing songs of lonely cowboys, dark desert highways, and the types of feelings that are both peaceful and easy.

"The Eagles are uniquely singable" says Cindy, "because the Eagles themselves, Don Henley etc., didn't have an extremely large range. And they're slow enough so that when you're walking you fall into a pace, because you're walking so you get into that rhythm, so it doesn't sound like you're turning the song into a dirge."

It's a clear, cold Saturday evening at Green Lake. The park is packed. Up ahead in the distance, Cindy and her friends walk along the path, past shimmering lights reflected in the lake. They huddle together, wearing puffy jackets and scarves, followed closely by a black lab named Murphy.

Gaggles of carolers gather along the path with more traditional tunes, hailing the gates of heaven and remarking on the silence and holiness of the night. Families pass by with antlers on their dogs and kids sipping hot cocoa.

I catch up with one couple. What did they think of the caroling sounds of Hotel California?

Freddie McKenzie throws up devil horns: "That was rockin' man. Yeah, you can check out but you can't leave, man. That's too bad."

But while Freddie is digging the vibe, Anne Mullen isn't sure what to make of it. "I like that music," she says, "but then I realized it wasn't holiday music and I thought 'What the heck is going on?'"

"Do you think it's a mockery of Christmas carols to do that?" I asked Mullen.

"I'm not sure. There's got to be a deeper meaning behind it. I think they're out here to protest, I've decided."

Ultimately, Anne says it's "not her thing." And that's about the strongest protest I hear all night. The park visitors didn't exactly take up torches and chase the Eagles carolers to the edge of a windy cliff, enraged by the hellscape of Californian hotels. After all, this is Seattle. When it comes to freedom of speech, you're pretty much preaching to the choir-or, in this case, singing to the preacher.

And the Eagles carolers aren't really trying to be provocateurs. They're just cheeky intellectuals with a taste for classic rock. Cindy's friend Gretchen has been with the Eagles carolers since they started six years ago, but she says she "never realized it was a protest." She says, "I just thought that year when we went around that first time that we got kind of sick of singing the Christmas carols."

If anything, Gretchen says their act is one of hope and nostalgia: "Most of the time, people just laugh, especially I have to say men in their forties when they hear us singing Eagles tunes, they just bust out laughing."

But the controversy isn't over. Back at Cindy's home, she pauses to ladle tomato soup into a teacup. It's good for the vocal cords.

"What do you think is a bigger danger to a civil and free society?" I ask. "Organized religion or the songs of the Eagles?"

Cindy's answer turns the tables: "Well, apparently they've got a new record out, so, or a new album that they're only selling at Wal-Mart, which cracks me up."

"Definitely, the songs of the Eagles," adds Gretchen.

"You know what it is?" adds Cindy. "It's the separation of culture from the individuals. With Wal-Mart, essentially the Eagles have married one of the biggest corporate offenders in the country."

So now even the Eagles are tainted. What's a secular humanist caroler to do? Do they stick to classic rock, or give in and start begging for figgy pudding? Finally, caroler Chris Adams improvises a compromise.

"Desperado," he sings, "why won't you bring me some pudding? I like Cuba Gooding, he sure does some good roles.a¦ so pudding, could I get some right here?"

Suddenly, all differences melt away. Religious and secular, left and right, Dasher and Dancer, they all agree on one thing: Pudding makes everything better.

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