For some families, the mystique of Christmas begins to fade as the children age out of Santa Claus and his magical team of reindeer and elves.
That’s why roughly 10 years ago, Rus Kuck, a retired Air Force man in Frederick, decided to reinvent the holiday for his two then-teenage daughters the best way he could think of — an elaborate Christmas Day scavenger hunt.
“When the girls got older, I just wanted to keep Christmas fun,” Kuck said.
The hunts have grown more and more complex.
They’re typically guided by a theme, Kuck said, and are propelled by clues that his daughters, Lia and Andrea, who are also in the Air Force, unravel by solving word problems and deciphering secret codes.
When they identify a clue, Kuck turns over the next one. After all of the clues are solved, the family gathers back at their house to unveil the hunt’s rewards.
This year’s theme was based on the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie series and was the result of four years of planning, Kuck said. It was launched by an ad that Kuck placed in the Christmas Eve edition of The Frederick News-Post.
“Arr, matey. Aye, ye be lookin’ fer the Flyer’s loot, ye say. Well, nah all treasure be gold or silver,” Kuck wrote in the ad.
After reading this “intel report,” as Kuck described it, and changing into pirate costumes, the hunt began a little after sunrise on Sunday for Andrea, Lia and Lia’s boyfriend, Anthony Hernandez, another airman.
The first stop: the Frederick H-Mart, where the trio were instructed to take a picture holding a crab similar to a species that makes an appearance in the third “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie.
“Wha’ kind o’ monsters can move a ship that ran aground when thar be no tide t’ take it back out? Find one o’ these creatures but no harm shall come t’ ‘e,” Kuck wrote.
In the movie, the crabs gather en masse to carry a beached pirate ship across a flat sea of white sand.
“He told us to pick [the crab] up, and we were like ‘No,’ so we took a picture instead,” Lia said.
After sending a picture of it to their father, they were given the next clue.
The fifth stop was the Hampton Inn & Suites on Opossumtown Pike in Frederick.
The three entered with confused smiles, their pirate costumes shrouded by thick winter coats, as they requested their next clue from the “innkeeper” at the front desk.
Rejé Barrow, the general manager at Hampton Inn, who welcomed Kuck’s request to plant a clue at the hotel, spoke warmly of Kuck’s Christmas tradition.
“It’s admirable, because a lot of us have lost Christmas cheer,” Barrow said. “To see that [cheer] embodied in this tradition is very, very uplifting.”
Lia, Andrea and Hernandez then received envelopes sealed with skull and bone stickers from the front desk. They deciphered the pirate jargon inside, which instructed them to reenact a Captain Morgan commercial in which a bar filled with captains all greet each other with a tip of the hat and a “Captain.”
“This is the only time we’ll be captains,” Andrea joked.
For the Kucks, this year’s Christmas scavenger hunt held a special significance. It was the first time in three years that Andrea was home for the holidays after consecutive deployments overseas in Japan, South Korea and Germany.
“[This year’s scavenger hunt] is something to look forward to, especially knowing that my dad has been working on it for so long,” Andrea said. “It’s something I plan to continue with my own family someday.”
Lia said that despite her frustrations with the complexity of some of the clues, she, too, was eager for this year’s hunt.
“Personally, I get very aggravated fast because I have no patience,” Lia said. “But it’s really nice to get together for my sister’s first year back … and to get to include someone that is significant to us but isn’t directly related,” Lia said of Hernandez.
Both Lia and Andrea are concerned that this year’s hunt could be the family’s last due to their father’s recent diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.
Kuck himself was unsure if he would continue the hunt next year, but his daughters said this year’s hunt was Kuck’s most creative and engaging one yet.
“I can definitely appreciate how thorough these are,” Hernandez said, “and with this being my first one, I can only imagine what the others were like.”
Upon solving clues seven and eight, the three returned to the family’s house.
There, they presented their compiled pieces and Kuck revealed this year’s gifts: three photos of Captain Jack Sparrow, autographed by the actor who plays him, Johnny Depp, and an assortment of other pieces of treasure.
As the three opened their gifts, Kuck read aloud the email he sent to Depp’s public relations team to request the photos.
“Each one of these Airmen are dedicated to protecting their country,” Kuck said. “I just thought that this would be an extremely nice gesture of you to help them remember the Christmas when they were pirates.”