WASHINGTON — Last Christmas Eve at 5, the long-running caroling tradition in Kenwood, a neighborhood in Chevy Chase, Md., seemed to be on a very wet track to coming to an end. The bitterly cold rain that evening refused to turn into snow. I could see from my window that no one was in the circle where the giant Christmas tree stood. There should have already been a crowd drinking hot chocolate, chatting and getting ready to sing.
Kenwood, the same Kenwood known across Washington for its cherry trees, has a Christmas caroling tradition that, to its residents, is just as profound as the cherry blossoms. I had gone every year since I moved into the neighborhood in 1997, and now all I could think was: Could this really be the end of that tradition? My family and I got our umbrellas and boots, and slogged over to the circle to find out.
As we approached, we suddenly saw three people standing near the tree. One was an older woman I recognized from past Christmas Eves. She was the vibrant person always playing the electric piano, accompanying the carolers. I knew nothing else about her.
"Ruthanna here," one woman said, pointing at our piano-less pianist, "was the one who started this whole caroling tradition in Kenwood. She's been doing this since World War II when she was in the Navy."
Old enough to be in World War II?! Was that even possible? I was disoriented just doing the mental math. She might as well have said Ruthanna used to split logs with Abe Lincoln.
I had to know two things: Was a tradition that old about to end? And who is this woman?
Just days after the Germans sank the Lusitania and two years before the United States even entered World War I, Ruthanna Maxwell was born, on May 31, 1915, in the small town of Findlay, Ohio.
From an early age, Ruthanna learned the importance of a healthy mind and body. How could she not? Her mother was a nutritionist who lived to be 107. Yet though Ruthanna did as her mother said and ate a green and a yellow vegetable every day, she was always small for her age. To her frustration, the nickname her brother gave her, "Puny," stuck for a long time.
The Great Depression hit as Ruthanna was graduating high school, and she had to decline her acceptance to Mount Holyoke College, because her father, who was in the oil business, couldn't afford the room and board. Instead, she enrolled at Findlay College just a few blocks away, from which her mother had graduated.
Ruthanna had taken up piano at age 4, and though she didn't study music in college, she played in a band. As a child, she had discovered she could "play by ear," often needing to hear a song only once before being able to play it. In high school she often performed at school shows. "The only trouble was that I was always down at the piano while the others were up on the stage having fun," Ruthanna remembered, chuckling.
After graduating from Findlay and to help supplement her pay as a high school English teacher, Ruthanna gave piano lessons and directed a church choir. She enjoyed teaching but wanted to make music a bigger part of her life. Ruthanna spent two summers at the University of Wisconsin in Madison working on a graduate degree in music. But she would never get to finish her thesis.
On a blisteringly hot day in August 1942, waiting for her train home, Ruthanna saw a poster of a young, female Uncle Sam exhorting: "Join the WAVES. The Navy Needs You." Three hours later she had set herself on a completely different career path and was enrolled in the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service.
The Navy catapulted her into a hidden world, a world of intrigue. After training, Ruthanna was assigned as an instructor in cryptology at the officer training school at Smith College in Massachusetts. Ruthanna was part of a tiny, highly classified, elite corps. Lives depended on the accuracy of the information it encoded. Ruthanna and the women she taught worked for hours every day, pushing for 100 percent accuracy. The material they worked with was so sensitive they burned everything at the end of each day. "It was very, very hush-hush, very, very secret," Ruthanna recalls.
But not even the war interrupted Ruthanna's music. Almost as soon as she arrived at Smith, she was asked to serve as music director for the WAVES choir. She held that position throughout her service, and even wrote the school's WAVES songbook.
A year after joining the Navy, Ruthanna met her first husband, Marshall Brushart, an oral surgeon, through mutual friends. A few months later on Dec. 4, 1943, the two married and moved into Brushart's new home in a neighborhood that was considered rural: Kenwood. Ruthanna has for 70 years lived in this house at the top of Highland Drive — untouched by renovations and with the floorboards her first husband pegged. The last 30 she has been by herself, having outlived both her husbands.
Little did Ruthanna know in 1943 how important this new community would become to her, and what an important part of the community she would be. From the moment she arrived, Ruthanna has participated in most neighborhood events. Or, more accurately, started many of them. And one in particular is one of Kenwood's most cherished.
"Kenwood is a great place to live," said Bob Shaffer, a real estate agent and former president of the Kenwood Citizens Association. "People don't know how warm the neighborhood is until they live here."
Dennis Potts, in his third house in Kenwood, grew up in the neighborhood the seventh of eight children, and moved back in 1999 after his mother died. Some of his fondest childhood memories were the Christmas Eve carols.
"For us it was always a family event," he said. "We bundled up, got in our warm clothes, and carried thermoses of hot chocolate our mom made for us. It was always beautiful."
The tradition is simple. On Christmas Eve, just as it's getting dark, residents gather around the circle in the heart of the neighborhood, with kids and with dogs running between people's legs as they pass out hot drinks and cookies. Then Ruthanna starts playing her little piano. People sing along from songbooks whose pages are more wrinkled every year.
Ruthanna plays all the classics, including "We Three Kings," during which three older male neighbors each bravely take a solo. Her favorite is "Up on the Housetop." After almost an hour, accounting for all the encores, the evening closes with "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." Reluctantly, people part, already looking forward to the next year, promising to dress warmer and bring the rest of their family.
A few Christmases stand out. One year, former neighbor Kendall Wheeler brought a horse and carriage and led rides around the neighborhood. Another year, 187 people showed up, the neighborhood record.
Kenwood is known for other annual traditions, such as the Fourth of July parade in which kids decorate their bikes and ride to the circle behind firetrucks. At Halloween, one family converts its home into a haunted house. In spring, another family hosts an Easter egg hunt. The cherry blossoms, of course, are Kenwood's most famous tradition, drawing huge international crowds and sprouting lemonade stands on every other front lawn.
"Kenwood has a very close-knit community," said Mary Eileen Morrissey, who has helped organize its children's breakfast with Santa, for 10 years. Ruthanna has played piano and introduced Santa at those breakfasts and has been instrumental in bringing Kenwood together in other ways, including holding monthly dinners, starting the neighborhood Garden Club and serving as president of the Kenwood Citizens Association.
"The community and traditions that Kenwood has stems from the people like Ruthanna, who have been here a long time and have educated the new people to ensure that these traditions are passed down," Morrissey said.
Until Christmas Eve 2012, as far as anyone could remember, the caroling tradition at least had always continued.
In 1945, on her second Christmas Eve in her new neighborhood, Ruthanna got into the back of a pickup truck with a few friends, a piano and some songbooks. They drove the winding Kenwood streets — some of which were still dirt roads — stopping periodically to regale their neighbors with carols. At the time, there were 80 houses, about 200 fewer than stand today. People were surprised and delighted and would come out and join them, bringing hot cider to warm the plucky singers.
The next year, when the piano fell out of the back of the truck — most likely the result of too much eggnog — everyone agreed they needed to find a safer, stationary location for caroling. Ruthanna instantly visualized what they needed: a giant Christmas tree to gather around.
Ruthanna approached one of the two founders of Kenwood, Donal Chamberlin, and told him the neighborhood needed to plant not a cherry tree but a Christmas tree in the landmark circle. Ruthanna eventually persuaded him, leading to its unofficial designation as "Christmas Tree Circle."
Ruthanna assumed the tree would outlive her, but it fell victim to a vicious storm in 1989, having lasted a mere 42 years. Its replacement succumbed 13 years later to construction work in 2002. Now Ruthanna is on her third tree, a 50-foot-high Colorado blue spruce. Every year, a few weeks before Christmas, the tree is strung with colored lights to welcome the holiday season. Back in the days of the first tree, it took many years for the neighbors to persuade Rosemary Plumb that she didn't need to climb the tree limbs to hang the lights — it was okay to use ladders.
Ruthanna has one son, Thomas Brushart, the Brushart Professor of Hand Surgery and chief of the Orthopedic Hand Surgery Service at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. Laughing, he said his primary role during the caroling tradition was "to hold the flashlight so Mother could read the music." A job requiring steady hands, this could have been perfect practice for Brushart's current work sewing nerves together.
In nearly a century, Ruthanna has enjoyed many accomplishments, including helping open the National Museum for Women in the Arts, hosting first ladies at the American Heart Association's annual dinner and welcoming new diplomats with the Meridian International Center.
But her role in starting Kenwood's Christmas caroling tradition may be one of her most remarkable achievements. What makes it so impressive is that it has lasted so long and has brought people together in such a profound and timeless way. The scene calls to mind a Norman Rockwell painting.
So the question on that miserable Christmas Eve last year was whether that tradition was going to continue or end. The rain wasn't letting up, and it was obvious no one else was coming.
"Ready?" Ruthanna said as she gathered the seven of us around her. No way the 97-year-young Ruthanna was going to let this tradition, her tradition — begun before anyone knew the outcome of the Second World War, and continued uninterrupted through many other wars over three generations — come to an end. She had outlasted them all. So, huddled under a pack of umbrellas, our breath adding to the misty fog, we began to sing. The tradition is unbroken.
And no one is betting on this latest tree outlasting her, either.