Caroling on The Circle to ring in community-wide food drive

Every year since the mid-1980s, holiday spirit in the season of giving comes full circle in Sussex County.

This year’s 36th annual Caroling on The Circle, a festive celebration that combines singing holiday carols with a community-wide food drive to support the less fortunate and needy, is Monday, Dec. 9.

Traditionally, hundreds of residents – along with the support of area schools, businesses and civic organizations – congregate on The Circle turn to sing traditional and Spanish carols and collect canned goods for area pantries, churches and food banks.

“The Caroling on The Circle food drive is really a very successful – quote/unquote – positive community effort,” said Steve Smith, executive director of the Christian Storehouse in Millsboro, among the event’s food drive annual beneficiaries. “There is nothing bad you can say about Caroling on The Circle and what it produces. It’s just good from top to bottom, start to finish.”
“And,” Mr. Smith adds, “it’s the reason for the season …”

Sussex County government in early November kicked off this year’s food drive for community food banks.
In 2018, the food drive netted almost 31,500 items, supporting nearly a dozen organizations. County officials aim to collect as many this year, or more, and encourage the public to do their part now to “Pack the Pod” – a 14-foot by 7-foot portable storage shed that will be set up at The Circle – with food items for local food pantries.

Since its inception in the 1980s, Caroling on The Circle has raised more than 700,000 items for local food pantries.
Sussex County Administrator Todd F. Lawson said Caroling on The Circle helps the community come together for a common cause, a familiar theme in a place where neighbors help neighbors.

“I am tremendously proud of what we are able to accomplish each year through the Caroling on The Circle campaign, but even more proud of what it says about this community,” Mr. Lawson said. “Sussex Countians always step up when it counts, and I have every expectation that our neighbors, friends, and fellow citizens will once again show the compassion and care that is found in every corner of this county.”

The food drive supports efforts throughout the county, including Christian Storehouse in Millsboro, Centenary UMC in Laurel, CASA San Francisco in Milton, First State Community Action Agency in Georgetown, Crisis House in Georgetown, Jusst Soup in Milton and Salem UMC in Selbyville, to name a few.

On average, the Christian Storehouse serves between 315 and 375 family units each month.

“We are giving emergency food 12 months of the year. In the fall, winter and spring, many food pantries see that there is an increase in requests, because we are a seasonal economy,” said Mr. Smith. “So, with that in mind, when we have the opportunity to receive a portion of what has been donated. We have to sort through it. But there is lots of soup. There are cans of corn and string beans and what have you, and those are items that many times we may have to go out and purchase. So, instead of purchasing them, we have the opportunity to sort through and make up all sorts of numbers of cases that we can use when we make up the bags for the public.”

Again, The Circle, will serve as the venue with the Sussex County Courthouse as the colorful backdrop.
WBOC TV on-air personality Jimmy Hoppa will emcee this year’s event. And back on stage to lead the congregational singing will be local artists Kevin Short and Ed Shockley.

There will also be the performances by the Georgetown Middle School, Mariner Middle School and Sussex Academy choirs, as well as the El Centro Cultural group.
Caroling on The Circle has evolved from the Delaware First initiative, through efforts of Sam Beard.

Archive research by local historian Jim Bowden documents the first Caroling on the Circle was held Dec. 20, 1984, sponsored by Delaware First, the city of Georgetown, Sussex County Associations of Towns and Sussex County Council.

It was attended by upward of 3,500 people according to the newspaper of the time and included fireworks afterwards.
Mr. Short has been a participant for three decades, as a stage singer as well as with his Mid-South Audio business, which has provided technical/production support for three decades.

“Sam Beard was in charge of Delaware First, and he started it. At that time there were three events. There was Caroling on The Circle, Caroling on The Green in Dover, and Caroling on The Square in Wilmington,” said Mr. Short. “At some point Delaware First backed out and the county took it over. I’ve been involved ever since the county took over, somewhere around 1989 or 1990.”
Over the years, it has grown and undergone change.
“The Hispanic contribution to it became more and more,” said Mr. Shockley. “We used to just have the little kids sing. Then we had the marimba band and then the last five years we’ve had the local school choirs.”

“It went through a lot of different changes. It has always been caroling with the congregational singing. But they had a theatrical company come in one year and did a whole production on stage,” said Mr. Short. “That might have been the first year the county took it over because I was just involved in the sound that year. That was kind of a bigger production that nobody really wanted to really get into. That was a lot.

“I don’t ever remember it not being a food drive,” said Mr. Short.
Singing is backed by a four-piece band: Michael Shockley (drums); Larry Lynch (bass); Jeff Irwin (keyboards) and Billy West (guitar).
“It covers the gamut. There are religious songs. We do ‘Silent Night’. We do ‘Away in the Manger’, ‘O Little town of Bethlehem’, ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing.’ Then we do ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town,’ and Santa Claus shows up.”

“’Silent Night’ is always my favorite. They pass out the candles,” said Mr. Short. “I’m a sucker for tradition.”
In more recent years, local elected officials have been part of the stage singers.
“It makes them uncomfortable. And that’s kind of fun! We get the opportunity to stick a microphone in front of their face,” said Mr. Short. “They are politicians, so they always wanted to get up on stage and say, ‘Hi,’ but now they actually have stand up there and sing. That part is fun.”

The show has gone on despite foul weather.
“We’ve had rain and we moved into the fire department,” said Mr. Short. “It has snowed twice. We didn’t move in those years. We actually did it in the snow.”

“And it has been balmy. You never know what you’re going to get,” said Mr. Shockley. “They updated with the snow machine a couple years ago. It covered us with that ‘snow’ which is made out of soap suds.”
Usually, Caroling on The Circle has been held on the first Monday in December. Not this year.

“This year is kind of odd because it’s not the first Monday (in December). Usually it’s the first Monday. But because Thanksgiving is the last Thursday … this is late as it ever gets,” said Mr. Short. “That’s tradition. There is usually not another Christmas parade going on. They try to make it a standalone event so we can get as many people as possible.”

“I love it. I love Christmas. I love being a part of it,” said Mr. Shockley. “I look forward to it every year. The first cold day after the time change, I am sitting at the piano playing Christmas songs, and it drives my wife crazy. So, we actually have made an agreement that I wouldn’t play any Christmas songs until after Thanksgiving. But these types of events that we have to get ready for require rehearsal sometimes. It’s crazy. I love it.”

Following the festivities, free cookies and hot chocolate will be available for all to enjoy at the Georgetown Fire Company, one block south of The Circle. The event is free. Participants only have to bring non-perishable food items for donation.

Food items will be collected that night, and donations can also be dropped off until the end of December, weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the County Administrative Offices building.
Donations also can be made at the County Administrative Offices West Complex, U.S. 113, in Georgetown, and at the Delaware Coastal Airport terminal building on Rudder Lane, just east of Georgetown.
For more information, call 855-7700.

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