With her daughter thousands of miles away, serving in Afghanistan as part of the Joint Visitors Bureau with the Army, Carolyn Schranz wanted to spread a little Red Hatter joy for the holidays.
On Wednesday morning, Nov. 16, she and eight other members of the Antique Teenagers of Northern Virginia Red Hatters club filled boxes with cakes, cookies and all the fixings for an elegant tea party to send to her daughter Gretchen and the eight other women she's serving with in Afghanistan.
"We're putting together a tea party for the girls for Christmas," Schranz said. "Hopefully, we'll be sending enough along that they'll be able to have several parties until they leave to go back to Italy in February," she said, adding that her daughter is based out of Vincenza, Italy.
Schranz's international tea party dreams were inspired when she learned from Gretchen that the women wear their battle dress uniforms for the entire term of their deployment, leaving them looking identical to their male counterparts.
"They don't have the chance to do anything feminine. They needed something to help with that, so in jumped the Red Hatters," Schranz laughed.
IN ADDITION TO several kinds of tea, two tea pots, cups and saucers for each of the nine women and many different kinds of cakes and cookies, the women will be receiving an extra surprise: their own specially designed pink hats.
In the Red Hatter organization, members aged 50 and over wear red hats, often decorated with large feathers, shiny beads and other flamboyant accessories. Women younger than 50 may join the club, but are only allowed to wear pink hats until their "Red-uation" on their 50th birthday, Schranz explained.
Each woman will receive two boxes, she said, one with tea party goodies and the other with their pink hat.
"We're also sending them all a stainless-steel spoon because the only cutlery they have there is plastic," Schranz said. "This way, they'll have the extra treat of that wonderful clinking sound when they stir their tea."
The six other Red Hatters gathered at her house Wednesday morning were busy filling out customs forms, listing the contents of each box, and carefully bubble-wrapping the items to be sent overseas. Each woman was responsible for one soldier's box and were teasing each other about how much their boxes were worth.
Elaine Petersen, a Red Hatter from Alexandria, had decided that the soldiers deserve to have some holiday music with their tea party. She drove up to Waterford, a historic Scottish village in Maryland, to purchase a CD of Christmas music played by a local woman on a dulcimer.
"The weekend I drove up there was the weekend we got all that rain," she said. The whole town was flooded and muddy, she said, but "I just had to get that music. It's rare to find a dulcimer on a Christmas CD, I thought they would enjoy it."
Petersen said she later found out the artists and crafters who sell their goods at Waterford "lost everything" because of the rain that weekend, but she was happy she got her music. "The CD has 'The Holly and The Ivy' on it, it's such lovely music," she said.
As for the tea party packing festivities, "this is what we do," Petersen said. "I'm sure the girls will appreciate getting a box, but we're putting some personality in them."
"It's the Red Hatter thing to do," said Jenny Cassell of McLean. "We're going to go out to lunch later and show off our red hats."
AS A MILITARY WIFE, Barbara Mullen of Alexandria understands the need to receive comfort from home while serving abroad.
"I always try to help a fellow soldier," she said, taking a break from filling out customs forms. "We just thought this would be a hoot."
Her husband served 28 years in the Army, Mullen said, including two tours of duty in Vietnam. "I just hope it's as much fun for the girls," she said.
"This is just a small gesture of thanks to them for going over there to protect us," said military wife and mother Nancy Mower of Springfield. "I want to support them any way I can."
In order to keep costs down, and knowing most of the items the women receive in Afghanistan won't be going back to Italy with them, the Red Hatters did most of their shopping in thrift stores.
"We were able to find really beautiful cups and saucers to send them," Mullen said. "They're all individualized, just like us."
Two pounds of tea were donated by the Victorian Tea Room and Bakery in Manassas, and when the Red Hatters went there for tea, they found little sugar cubes with — what else? — tiny red hats painted on them. The sugar cubes will be sent to Afghanistan as well, Schranz said.
Other items, like books and current magazines, will also be sent to the soldiers, along with some soaps and shampoos to help the women feel more like women instead of soldiers.
"The most elegant shampoo they can get there is Pert Plus or something," Schranz said. "These girls share everything. I sent them little samples of perfume once and they just loved it. We just wanted to do something to remind them that yes, they are girls."
Just so the men they work with don't feel left out, Schranz said her husband is sending along a package with 24 cigars as their Christmas treat.
"Plus, they'll have to go outside to smoke them, so the girls will have the place to themselves," she giggled.
Enclosed in the boxes will be a photograph of the Red Hatters, along with an invitation for the soldiers, telling them to name the time and date for their tea party. The Red Hatters will be there in spirit, and in photographs, with big smiles under big hats.