Following the double-platinum success of her Once Upon a Christmas LP with Kenny Rogers in 1984, it was a natural that Dolly Parton would eventually release another holiday-themed album. After her short-lived variety series in the late Eighties, the East Tennessee native finally went Home for Christmas with an LP and an ABC TV special in 1990. Unlike the previous album, which included several new original tunes, Home for Christmas was built around traditional Yuletide fare, including such songs as “The Little Drummer Boy,” “We Three Kings” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
Shot in and around Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, the special opens with Parton strolling through a Christmas shop and telling a store clerk about how the members of her Mighty Fine Band helped set the mood for recording the LP in July of that year. She then sings “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and is seen getting into a pickup truck driven by her dad, Robert Lee Parton.
Parton gathers family members, including her mother, Avie Lee, her singing siblings, countless nieces, nephews and others, in the tiny cabin where she and her 11 siblings were raised in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, as they “Deck the Halls” with wall-to-wall Partons.
In one of the special’s most touching moments, Dolly’s parents tell the story of the traditional gift they had shared since their first year of marriage, 51 years earlier. Because they were so poor then, Avie spent the one dollar she had on a handkerchief and a box of chocolate–covered cherries for her husband. It became a Christmas tradition for the couple, ending when Lee passed away in November 2000. Avie Lee Owens Parton died in December 2003.
Dolly and her five sisters — Stella, Cassie, Rachel, Freida and Willadeene — gather to sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” proving she’s not the only talented member of the Parton brood. All dressed in angelic white, the sisters nevertheless tease Dolly about always wanting just one thing for Christmas: makeup, which her daddy objected to because he thought it was “evil.” “But, you know how Dolly was,” says Stella. “She used to take matches and burn ’em and wet ’em on the ends and make mascara.” Dolly adds that she often used pokeberries as homemade rouge, which she also used to brighten her lips.
Although her parents are both gone now, their memory — and the memories of the entire Parton family — live on in Coat of Many Colors, NBC’s autobiographical film starring Jennifer Nettles and Ricky Schroder as Avie and Lee, with Alyvia Alyn Lind in the role of young Dolly. In addition to well-deserved rave reviews for the cast, the film’s initial airing drew 13 million viewers and, like Parton’s family reunions and her daddy’s chocolate-covered cherries, the family film has become a Christmas tradition.