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A Tradition Begins

with Tom Elliff | December 17, 2008

A red feather on the tree became a symbol of God's provision during Christmas 1946. Pastor Tom Elliff recalls how his mother placed a red feather from her hat onto their Christmas tree during that lean time following the war. From that Christmas on, the tree wasn't complete until the feather occupied a place of honor among the boughs.

A red feather on the tree became a symbol of God's provision during Christmas 1946. Pastor Tom Elliff recalls how his mother placed a red feather from her hat onto their Christmas tree during that lean time following the war. From that Christmas on, the tree wasn't complete until the feather occupied a place of honor among the boughs.

A Tradition Begins

With Tom Elliff
|
December 17, 2008
| Download Transcript PDF

Bob: It was just before Christmas, 1946, in Lake Village, Arkansas.  Tom Elliff was three years old.  He still remembers today decorating the Christmas tree with his family when a visitor arrived.

Tom: All of a sudden, outside, we heard this car door slam and a click of high heels on the steps leading up to our front door, and we knew who that was, because there was only one lady in our community who would wear high heels all the time, and that was the local physician's wife. 

And she walked into the room bearing a gift, a beautifully wrapped box, which was for my mother.  And, oh, inside was something that every lady just lived to have, and that was a new hat.  And what set it apart from all the hats my mother had was this beautiful red feather just stuck right in the brim. 

I mean, it was – my mother just couldn't get over it, you know, and then Mrs. Dr. Johnson turned to my mother and said, "Now, I expect to see you with that hat on this Sunday at church."  And, with that, she just bid us all adieu, and she was out the door, and she drove off into the night.

Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, December 17th.  Our host is the president of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine.  Tom Elliff's mother didn't show up in church wearing that green hat the following Sunday.  She did something else with the red feather.  We'll find out what today.  Stay tuned.

And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us.  When you think back on your own Christmases as a child, are those memories mostly happy or are there Christmases you look back on and go, "That was a miserable Christmas."

Dennis: Overwhelmingly positive.

Bob: Really?

Dennis: Oh, yeah, we had a great Christmas.  I mean, Christmas was a time when family was together, fun was had, memories were made.  We had a blast together.  Both my mom and dad's families were dirt poor, and so we didn't have much in terms of material goods, but I just remember laughing so hard you'd cry.  I mean, you literally had so much fun there would be tears coming out of your eyes, and I don't really have any bad memories.

Bob: You know, we have mutual friends who have described to us Christmas memories that are, in some ways, traumatic.  I think of a friend whose dad decided on that day to leave the family, and I think he was two or three years old when Dad announced that he was moving out.  And you have to wonder, when there are those kinds of memories connected to Christmas, what does that do when Christmas comes up every year on the calendar?

Dennis: And, for a lot of people, relationships are made during Christmas or they are endured during Christmas, because there is a – well, there's a crosscurrent, a lack of forgiveness, maybe a hurt from years ago perhaps at Christmas, but it just could be a disappointment in a family member that takes place.  And we have a guest with us today, Tom Elliff, who is going to share a story that I think is going to touch a lot of our listeners.

Bob: He's going to do a little Christmas reminiscing with us today.

Dennis: Tom, welcome back.

Tom: Thanks, Dennis.

Dennis: It's been a while since you've been with us.

Tom: It has been too long.

Dennis: It has.  He is one of the few people in America that has more grandchildren than me.  Barbara and I have 14, and we always look at our Christmas card and everything, and we go, that's a lot of human beings.  But when we get Tom and Jeannie Ellis' Christmas card, it's – you know, those panorama shots.

Tom: Yeah, it's a camp shot.

[laughter]

Church camp.

Dennis: Twenty-three grandchildren from – count 'em – only four children.

Tom: Yeah.

Dennis: Now, you've got to be proud of those four children.

Tom: I am proud of the four children, but I am even more proud of my four grandchildren – my 23 grandchildren.

Dennis: Tom works for the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.  He is a senior vice president for them, and for a number of years was a pastor in the Oklahoma City area, travels nationwide speaking, has written nine books, and he has written a book that is called "The Red Feather," and this story goes all the way back to a Christmas in 1946.  Take us back there, Tom, and how this all got started.

Tom: Well, that Christmas, for me, took place not really very far from here – down in the southeastern corner of Arkansas.

Dennis: Yeah, a town …

Tom: Yeah, Lake Village.

Dennis: Lake Village.

Tom: Right in the Mississippi Delta, you know, this huge crescent-shaped lake used to be the bed of the Mississippi River.  I think it's the largest oxbow lake in the United States, as a matter of fact.  But back in 1946, you know, we were still in a wartime economy, and you talk about growing up without having very much, those were tough days for us all.

My dad was pastor of the First Baptist Church of Lake Village, Arkansas, at that time, and I'll tell you, it was a great experience for us being in that town but especially around Christmas.

Bob: And Christmas in 1946 you'd have been how old?

Tom: Oh, Christmas in 1946, I would have been …

Dennis: You were about 20, weren't you?

[laughter]

Tom: Oh, yeah, yeah, I'm sorry, Dennis.  When I was born, the Dead Sea was just sick.

[laughter]

I was looking forward toward my fourth birthday.

Bob: In 1946, and you were the second of what would eventually be four children.

Tom: The second of four children, that's right.

Bob: Your older sister, Sandy, would have been five or six.

Tom: She was three years ahead of me.

Bob: Okay, all right.

Tom: And …

Dennis: And, again, we're talking about a small town here, too.  Lake Village has how many people right now?

Tom: About the same number it had then, you know, just a few thousand people but probably not even that many.  Back then, about 1,500, I would imagine.

Dennis: Yeah, yeah.

Tom: And mostly tied to the farming communities there in the Mississippi Delta, and, of course, we were pretty poor, as we say.

Dennis: And so you were decorating the Christmas tree.

Tom: Yeah, we had – I can remember the decorations on that tree, because they were pretty scarce as well.  My sister had strung some popcorn together, and, of course, that was on the tree, and then I had made some crepe paper links, like a chain, and we were hanging those on the tree, various colored links, and the tree just didn't look like you think of a Christmas tree looking, you know?

Bob: But, you're three, you didn't know any better, did you?

Tom: Honestly, I was having a blast.  Dennis, you talk about positive Christmases, you know, that's me.  Christmas is a wonderful time.  We were having a great time, but in the middle of that event, my mother, I'd noticed, kept looking at that tree and saying, "Oh, this tree needs something," and, all of a sudden, outside we heard this car door slam and a click of high heels on the steps leading up to our front door, and we knew who that was because there was only one lady in our community who would wear high heels all the time, and that was the local physician's wife.

And she and her husband – very generous, very giving people, but in my mind, very aristocratic people -- she came into our room there, the living room, and just, I mean, when the door opened she came in right along with the wind.  You know, I thought – I had never seen royalty.  I always pictured her as being royalty.

Bob: The queen of Lake Village had just arrived.

Tom: Exactly right.  She would wear a stole, by the way, Bob, in church.  It was one of those fox stoles, and I was so intrigued with it – it still had the – everything was on it, the eyes and the teeth, the nose, and I would play with it – sit behind – and my mother would grab my hand and yank it back and say, "Quit that."

She had everything.  It was all together there in this wonderful lady.  And she walked into the room, our living room, bearing a gift, a beautifully wrapped box, which was for my mother.

Dennis: And your mom opened that box and inside was …

Tom: Oh, inside was something that every lady just lived to have, and that was a new hat.  Dennis, back in those days, you probably don't remember it because you were just a kid …

Dennis: I was yet unborn, I just want to go on the record, in 1946 …

Bob: But pretty close to coming.

Tom: Yeah, exactly right.  Well, let me just say that in those days some of your listeners will recall that everyone wore a hat, everyone wore hats.  Ladies wore hats to shop on Saturday, men wore hats, you know, you didn't want to be seen without a hat.  Inside this box was a hat that just – it was stunning.  My mother just couldn't believe it.  It was a green hat made out of sort of a felt material, you know, it had lace down the front of it, and what set it apart from all the other hats my mother had was this beautiful red feather just stuck right in the brim.  I mean, it was – my mother just couldn't get over it, you know, and then Mrs. Dr. Johnson, turned to my mother and said, "Now, I expect to see you with that hat on this Sunday at church."  And, with that, she just bid us all adieu, and she was out the door.  It seemed like the wind left when she went out the door.  You heard the car door slam, and she drove off into the night.

Bob: Now, was this her way of honoring the pastor's wife?

Tom: I think so, yeah.

Bob: Bringing by a nice present for your mom, and so did your mom wear the hat the next Sunday?

Tom: No, she didn't, and that's what the story of the red feather is all about.  She stood there with that hat in her hand, and she looked at my sister and I, and then looked at the hat, and then looked at the tree, and looked at the hat, and looked at the tree again, and then in one just impulsive and very extravagant, I think, expression of generous love, she yanked the feather out of the hat, just tore it up – and took the feather, placed it in the top of the tree and backed off and said, "There, that's just what this tree needed."

Now, that may not mean a lot to a lot of people, but, in the first place, it meant she wasn't going to show up Sunday with that hat on, or at least with the feather in the hat.  Mrs. Dr. Johnson was going to be a little bit disappointed.  But it also meant this – that she cared for her children so much that she didn't want them to miss anything about Christmas, even if she had to do without.

In my way of thinking, that very humble gesture on her part might have been the sentiments expressed by the Heavenly Father years ago when He looked down at that scene in Bethlehem, and that child there in the manger in the stable with Mary and with Joseph, I think He might have said, "There, that's just what this world needs."  It's very costly, but it's exactly what this world needs.

Bob: At the time, you couldn't have understood what it meant to your mom to take the feather from the hat and put it on the tree at age 3.

Tom: Oh, of course, not.

Bob: At age 3, you just saw your mom doing that, but looking back on it later, you recognized this was a sacrificial move.

Dennis: Yeah, that was my question – when did it dawn on you?  Was it during your teenage years, later on when you had a family of your own?  When did that generosity …

Tom: Actually, I began to think about it when I was a teenager.  Let me just say that that feather got packed away in an old – you remember those grapefruit boxes? 

Dennis: Uh-huh.

Tom: Well, that's – you know, we had so few Christmas decorations that they were all put in the grapefruit box, and the feather got put in the box.  We moved and, of course, my father was a pastor, so we made several transitions during his pastorate, and, you know, that box went with us, and every Christmas when we'd open it up, there would be the red feather, and the red feather became almost a rite in our family, a real tradition, and I think everybody ought to have Christmas traditions, but the last thing we put on the tree, even after the angel was put on the top of the tree, my dad would hold one of us up in the air, you know, and usually it was the youngest, and we'd put the feather there in the tree.

And, after a while, you know, we began to ask, "Why is that there?"  And we'd hear the story again and again, you know, and then we'd explain it to my brother when they came along, we told the story to them, and then, later on, as we grew up, of course, we'd bring our future spouses to the house and point to the red feather and say, "Now, that red feather has a story behind it."  And so it became synonymous with Christmas for us.

Dennis: You actually refer to that feather as a silent witness of growing up, of dating, in the teenage years, bringing spouses, as you've mentioned, back home to Christmas.

Tom: Yeah, I don't, Dennis, I don't, you know, feathers don't have feelings, obviously, but if this feather had a feeling, that feather, I think, was probably willing to be stored away into dark obscurity for 11 months every year just for the privilege of sitting up in that tree for one month and watching a family mature right in front of it.  Kids growing up and then wives and husbands and then grandchildren and it was always there, the feather was always there.

Bob: So your memories of Christmas growing up are all like Dennis's – happy, positive, joyful.

Tom: Incredibly so.

Bob: Uh-huh.  I've just been sitting here thinking about one of the most memorable Christmases, not when I was growing up but when we were first starting our family, one of the most memorable Christmases we had was a miserable Christmas when it was the first Christmas away from family.  Mary Ann and I were living out on the West Coast, all of our family was back in Missouri or in Oklahoma, and we were just used to being with family on Christmas Day.  It just made sense.

Well, here we were living in California, and it was Christmas, and we had a three-year-old, and Mary Ann was four days away from giving birth to our second child, so we couldn't travel.  We were going to be on our own for Christmas morning for the first time as a family.

And I remember getting up with Amy, who was three, and my wife, who was pregnant, and we went down and did what we were used to doing – getting together and emptying out our stockings and then opening the presents, and the whole thing was over in about 45 minutes, and the rest of the day we had nothing to do.  I think we went out for Christmas dinner at the only cafeteria that was open in Sacramento on Christmas Day and had a cafeteria lunch; kept waiting for family to call, and nobody called us.

Finally, about 7:00, I think, we called back home to see how the family was doing, and they were in the middle of a family party and really couldn't talk, you know, because everybody was having fun, and that sticks out as being a memorable Christmas because of what wasn't there.

And, you know, you guys have described what was memorable because of what was there – love and family and a relationship and warmth and laughter.  When that's absent at Christmas, the loneliness and the sadness can be profound, especially if it's been a part of your past, and it's not a part of your present.

Dennis: And I think it speaks, Bob, to, really, the assignment that moms and dads have as they begin to build traditions. And take something that maybe is as simple and yet profound as a red feather and begin to build some memories around it.

Now, we didn't have the red feather.  I'd have to say the equivalent of our red feather were my mom's chocolate covered bonbons that had a …

Bob: And they didn't get packed away every year.

Dennis: They didn't get packed away.

Tom: That was the fruitcake.

Dennis: The fruitcake was given away.  But each of those bonbons had a whole almond in it, and I mean those bonbons were so good -- each and every one of them, just about the size of a walnut.

Bob: They did get packed away, didn't they?

Dennis: They did get packed away for several months afterwards because they had about 1,000 calories in each one.  It was like a nuclear sugar, but it was just fantastic to know where my mom hid them.  It was always kind of a joke where she would hide them so they'd be cool, and that I, as a kid, would slip over and try to get one, and she knew I was getting them, you know?  But it was okay because it was Christmas.

Tom: But you mentioned, in fact, Bob, you mentioned this and, Dennis, you used this word as well – "warmth."  I think one of the responsibilities of parents is to provide warmth, and I'm not speaking about just physical warmth there.  I think everyone listening knows what that word means in terms of a family.  Love, encouragement, support, affirmation, all of that goes into this concept of warmth, and children deserve that and yet so many children at Christmas do not receive that.

As a matter of fact, unfortunately, there are so many parents who believe that the more stuff I can provide, I guess that's a good substitute for warmth.  It is not.  It is not.  Simple traditions faithfully adhered to means so much more to children as they're growing up, and I'm here to tell you, it means a lot to you when you become an adult.

Bob: What really matters at Christmas is not the gift, but what matters is that you solidify family and memories and – whether it's red feathers or bonbons, you just– you grab those things, as a parent, as the head of a family, and you say, "We're going to build some meaning and some tradition and some family nests around this."

Dennis: And if you don't purposely do this, you're not going to experience it, because this doesn't just happen.

Tom: You don't fall out of bed in the morning and develop traditions.  You have to be deliberate about it.

Dennis: And you have to be faithful to follow through year after year after year.  One of our traditions that we developed for our family was not the chocolate bonbons – I didn't need them, and our kids didn't, either, but we developed a Christmas Eve meal where Dad shooed Barbara out of the kitchen, and the girls who were all old enough joined me in the kitchen where we prepared a feast.  You talk about an extravagant gift, it was a feast of feasts.  If I was sentenced to death, this would be the feast …

Tom: Your last meal.

Dennis: The last meal – it just doesn't get any better than this meal.  And the girls and I would cook this feast, and we would take hors d'oeuvres, you know, into the living room and serve them and kind of all dressed up, and that continued.  And when our children became adults, when we now go to their homes on Christmas, on Christmas Eve, guess what we do?  Yeah, it's Dad and the adult daughters who get together and who, once again, make that extravagant feast, and it really is back to the word "extravagant" that you used about your Mom's gift to your family at that point, because that's what Jesus Christ really is at Christmas.  And you know what?  We need to celebrate that by having some visual reminders and some memories that we carry forward in the future.

Bob: You know, there's a lot more to this red feather than we've heard about today.  We've really just heard about how it came to be a part of your family's traditions, but it came to mean and to symbolize a whole lot more than that.  We're going to unpack that as we continue with the story this week, but I want to encourage listeners to get a copy of the book that you've written that's called "The Red Feather," because it is a beautiful parable.

This is a small book that would make a wonderful gift book, and it really is a parable about extravagant love, about generosity, forgiveness, reconciliation, relationships that are healed. We'll hear more about it this week but, again, we have copies of the book, "The Red Feather" in our FamilyLife Resource Center, and you can go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com, and all the information you need about the book is available there.  And, in fact, along with the book, we're happy to send along, at no additional cost, the CD audio of our conversation here with Tom Elliff.  So you'll get both the book and the audio version of the story.

When you go to FamilyLifeToday.com, you can order online, if you'd like.  Or call us at 1-800-FLTODAY, 1-800-358-6329, and ask to get a copy of the book, "The Red Feather," and we're happy to send it out to you.  Let me also mention that we have resources like our interactive Nativity scene, "What God Wants for Christmas," or like, Dennis, your wife, Barbara's new book, "When Christmas Came," that can be a part of your family's Christmas traditions.  And there is information about those resources, again, at our website, FamilyLifeToday.com or call 1-800-FLTODAY, and someone on our team can answer any questions you have about these resources or get the ones you need sent to you.

You know, we have a lot to be thankful for and joyful for during this time of the year.  I know, here at FamilyLife, one of the things we're very grateful for as we look back on the past year is the thousands of people who indicated to us that, for the first time, they put their faith in Christ as a result of being at one of our Weekend to Remember Marriage Conferences or hearing this radio program and contacting us and saying, "I want to respond to the Gospel, I want to follow Christ."

What a great encouragement and what a reason for celebration, and we just want you to know we are thrilled at how God has used this ministry over the past year and even in the midst of times like this when there is the economic uncertainty we've been experiencing.  Some folks have lost their jobs recently.  There is still reason to rejoice and to celebrate what God has been doing, and we trust that God will continue to work through the ministry of FamilyLife in the year ahead.

We have had some friends of the ministry come to us recently, and they have said that they would like to not only support our ministry but to encourage others to do the same thing here at the end of the year.  So they have offered to match the donations that come into FamilyLife during the month of December on a dollar-for-dollar basis up to a total of $425,000.  And, Dennis, if we're going to take full advantage of that matching gift opportunity, we're going to need to hear from our listeners.  We've already been hearing from many of them, and we are very encouraged by what we've heard so far.

We need folks to call 1-800-FLTODAY or go online at FamilyLifeToday.com and make a donation here at year-end.

Dennis: Bob, when a couple of other couples and Barbara and I started FamilyLife back in 1976, we knew that there were three relationships in life we were not going to naturally be great at -- number one, a relationship with God; secondly, our relationship with our spouse; and, third, our relationship with our family.  And we thought, you know what?  What a great opportunity to not only help other people in those three commitments and those relationships but also get some training ourselves.

Well, you know what?  That's what we've tried to do here every day on FamilyLife Today – help you in your relationship with God, your spouse, and your family.  And if you agree with those priorities, right now would be very timely to make a financial investment in this ministry.  Could I ask you to stand with me as we stand with you and helping you in life's most important commitments?

Bob: And you can do that by going online at FamilyLifeToday.com, make a donation online or call us at 1-800-FLTODAY and, again, please help us take full advantage of this $425,000 matching gift challenge.  We hope you are able to do that and hope to hear from you.

Well, tomorrow we're going to be back with our guest, Tom Elliff.  We're going to hear more about the red feather that was on their Christmas tree and about what it came to symbolize for their family.  I hope you can be with us for that.

I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team.  On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine.  We'll see you tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas – help for today; hope for tomorrow. 

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