Step into the days of Christmas past as singers from around the Rogue Valley gather to spread good cheer on Ashland's downtown Plaza. Sing along to such traditional carols as "Joy to the World," "O Holy Night," "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," "O Little Town of Bethlehem," "Away in a Manger," "Silent Night," "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" and others from 7 to 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 23.

Step into the days of Christmas past as singers from around the Rogue Valley gather to spread good cheer on Ashland's downtown Plaza. Sing along to such traditional carols as "Joy to the World," "O Holy Night," "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," "O Little Town of Bethlehem," "Away in a Manger," "Silent Night," "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" and others from 7 to 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 23.

"You'd be amazed how many songs you can sing in just one hour," says William Hayes, who for the past eight years has organized the carolers.

Folks are encouraged to join in the caroling, and songbooks will be provided for those who don't know the lyrics. Free hot cider and coffee will be available.

"Some people just stand and listen," Hayes says. "Others join in for a couple of songs and then move on. People should bring flashlights to light up the pages in the songbooks."

Hayes and his group are always looking for new songs that bring the meaning of Christmas to the forefront.

"One, 'Mary, Did You Know?' was written by Mark Lowry, a Christian comedian," Hayes says.

Lowry composed the lyrics in 1984 when his pastor asked him to write something for a church choir presentation. The music was written by Buddy Greene. In 1992, Michael English was the first artist to record "Mary, Did You Know?" and country music artist Kathy Mattea recorded her version of the song in 1993 for her Christmas album, "Good News."

"We don't do a lot of 'Jolly Old St. Nicholas' or 'Frosty the Snowman,' " Hayes says. "We want to get back to the traditional meaning of Christmas. Some people are afraid of offending others' faiths, or they get caught up in the Black Friday rush and lose the meaning of Christmas.

"Why would peace on Earth and joy to men offend anyone?" Hayes asks. "Who would have a problem with that?"

Someone different leads the caroling every year, Hayes says. It's always kind of a surprise.

The late Pastor Bob Mathers of Alliance Bible Chapel has led the group in the past, along with Pastor Mark Anderson of Ashland Christian Fellowship and Pastor Duane Robinson of First Baptist Church of Ashland.

Hayes, who was raised in foster homes, sang in his school choirs at Medford's Washington and Jefferson elementary schools. He later attended middle school and high school in Ashland.

"I've been singing traditional carols since I was in youth groups that performed in retirement centers and from door to door," Hayes says. "But I'm more of a background singer."

Hayes and his group — Roberta Reagan, Greg Mann, Mark Annis and Tim Hutchinson on keyboard — make up the Sons to Glory Men of Thunder Ministries, a volunteer group that offers prayer services and food to the poor every Sunday in Lithia Park. The group will work with Ashland Christian Fellowship Sunday, Dec. 25, to serve a free Christmas dinner at the Historic Ashland Armory.

"Christmas isn't about what you have," Hayes says. "It's about good cheer, counting your blessings and sharing what you have."