The Old, Red Woolen Scarf
by Karen Kingsbury
When I think of Christmas traditions, I think of an old, red woolen scarf that hangs in our front closet. The scarf belonged to my dad, Ted Kingsbury, lover of all things Christmas and creator of our family holiday traditions.
Dad bought the red scarf and a Charles Dickens’ type top hat the winter of 1971, after a group of carolers came by our house. The group sang a number of songs while tears glistened in my father’s eyes.
“That’s what we’re going to do!” he declared, a smile stretched across his face. “Our family is going to carol!”
And so we did.
Every year after that, my family would spend a day baking Christmas cookies and arranging them on festive red and green plates. We would cover the plates in plastic and place bows at the center and stack a dozen of them in the back of our station wagon. Then we would head out to the houses of friends.
The recipients of our caroling were always surprised—new friends, new locations each Christmas. But always the same song. We would take a plate of cookies to the door, whispering as we found our positions on the front porch. And as soon as our friends opened the door, we would start to sing: “We wish you a merry Christmas. We wish you a merry Christmas . . .”
We’d hand off a plate of cookies and be off to the next house.
No one sang with more gusto than my dad, decked in his hat and that red woolen scarf.
The tradition of caroling led to other traditions. In the days before Christmas, my dad would read us the old classic, “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” And on Christmas Eve, he would track the radar reading of reindeer in the sky. Something that always delighted us kids.
But most importantly, those early caroling days of Christmas led to a host of traditions I brought to my kids. From the early days of raising our children, my husband and I started a number of traditions that have carried on to this coming Christmas—even with our youngest son now a freshman in college.
When the children were little, we began setting up an Advent calendar, a large, red felt wall-hanging with a Christmas tree embroidered on it. Twenty-four small pockets make up the bottom of the piece, and in those pockets are small handmade ornaments. Every day in December, one of the kids had the chance to hang an ornament on the tree until finally, on Christmas Eve, one child would hang the star at the top.
Then there was the wooden Advent calendar, which stood on the buffet table in our dining room. Again, every day in December, one of our six little ones would open a small wooden door in the box and retrieve a few pieces of candy, a Bible verse and a small “act of kindness” for the child to do that day. “Help one of your brothers with their homework.” Or “Say something nice to everyone in your family.” Or “Pray for the people of our city.” Every night at dinner, the child whose turn it was that day would share how he played out his act of kindness.
And those traditions were just the beginning.
Sometime after we adopted our three boys from Haiti in 2001, when the kids ranged in age from 4 to 13, we began doing a gingerbread house competition. In teams of two, the children worked with a gingerbread kit and small Dixie cups of assorted candy, pretzels, miniature marshmallows and chocolate chips. Whatever might look good on their creations.
On the first Saturday in December, the kids would get with their teammates, and for the next three hours they would work on their houses. Christmas music would play in the background, allowing for random breakout moments of singing and merriment. My husband, Don, and I would walk around, encouraging the various teams, praising their efforts and taking pictures.
Always taking pictures.
My mom and dad would come by when the houses were finished, and they would marvel at the creations of the children. “I wish we’d done this when you kids were young,” my dad told me more than once.
As December played out, we found another tradition—attending a Christmas show or concert, something big where everyone could join in. My parents, my sisters and their kids. All of us—because that’s part of the joy of Christmas.
And of course we had our favorite holiday movies: Scrooge, the Musical with actor Albert Finney, The Preacher’s Wife, While You Were Sleeping, Miracle on 34th Street, Home Alone 1 & 2 and Elf.
We could never get enough out of December, celebrating every day the birth of Jesus, the rescue of mankind. It was also important to find quiet time with our children, moments to settle in around the reality of the Christ Child and what His arrival meant to this world. What it still means.
So somewhere in the early years with our kids, we began reading The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson. I was always the designated reader, taking on a few chapters each time we gathered together, usually a couple days each week.
The kids laughed at the Herdmans crazy antics and the sarcasm with which the narrator tells the story. But always—every year—together we wiped tears at the end. When Imogene Herdman gives her government-issued ham to the baby Jesus. And that moment when Christmas just sort of lands on Imogene, the way it lands on all of us who are paying attention in the days of December.
For several years, our family had another tradition. We called it “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” something we picked up from another family at our church. The idea is on December 13 to secretly leave a small gift on the porch of someone who needs cheering up. Leave a note too—something that hints at the surprise to come without letting the family know who the gift is from. Then, on December 14, leave two of some sort of gift—two spools of ribbon or two candy bars. Again, something small.
The next day, three gifts. The next day, four. Until finally, on December 24, twelve small gifts are delivered—a dozen ornaments or cookies. That sort of thing. And on that day, the doorbell is rung and the reveal is made. Merry Christmas!
The Twelve Days of Christmas was fun, but time-consuming. And some years, weather simply didn’t allow for a nightly clandestine trip out of the neighborhood. But still, the years we did it, we loved it. There was nothing quite as fun as sneaking around and trying not to get caught—all in the name of bringing Christmas love to another family.
And of course, the one tradition we absolutely could not do without was caroling. Like when I was a child, our family would bake Christmas cookies all day and arrange them on festive plates. Then we would travel to a host of different family friends, police stations, churches and retirement homes to sing our song. “We wish you a merry Christmas. We wish you a merry Christmas . . .”
My dad’s health began to deteriorate sometime around the turn of the century. He went from being a vibrant man, leading the pack on our family caroling times, to someone riddled with diabetes and heart disease. Illness took his ability to walk long stretches, and he spent his days in a wheelchair. But still he loved Christmas. He would wear that red woolen scarf and his old top hat to our house for the annual showing of Scrooge. And always, he would dab at the tears on his cheeks at the end, when Scrooge finally figures it out—when Christmas lands on him.
My dad went home to heaven the fall of 2007—a loss I will carry with me until I draw my last breath.
That year, when the December day came to do our caroling, our oldest son, Tyler, 14 at the time, found his Papa’s red woolen scarf in the front closet and slipped it around his neck. “Because Papa cared about Christmas traditions,” Tyler told me.
And so that has become the latest tradition. At key moments in December—the gingerbread house competition, the watching of Scrooge, the Musical and the night our family goes caroling—there around Tyler’s neck is the one thing that will always be a part of Christmas. The symbol of tradition that started it all.
My dad’s old, red woolen scarf.
And in that moment, Christmas lands on me too.
The way it always has.
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