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December 6, 2013

A 67-year-old caroling tradition

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.

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