I come from a large family of nine brothers and sisters, and all of us have kids of our own. On each Christmas night, our entire family gathers at my oldest sister's home, exchanging gifts, watching the nativity skit1
put on by the smaller children, eating, singing and enjoying a visit from Santa himself.
The Christmas of 1988, my husband Bob and I had four children. Peter was eleven, Leigh-Ann was nine, Laura was six and Matthew was two. When Santa arrived, Matthew parked himself on Santa's lap and pretty much remained dazzled by him for the rest of the evening. Anyone who had their picture taken with Santa that Christmas also had their picture taken with little Matthew.
Little did any of us know how precious those photos with Santa and Matthew would become. Five days after Christmas, our sweet little Matthew died in an accident at home. We were devastated2
. We were lucky to have strong support from our families and friends to help us through. I learned that the first year after a death is the hardest, as there are so many firsts to get through without your loved one. Birthdays and special occasions become sad, instead of joyous3
When our first Christmas without Matthew approached, it was hard for me to get into the holiday spirit. Bob and I could hardly face putting up the decorations or shopping for special gifts for everyone. But we went through the motions for Peter, Leigh-Ann and Laura. Then, on December 13, something extraordinary happened to raise our spirits when we didn't think it was possible.
We were just finishing dinner when we heard a knock on the front door. When we went to answer it, no one was there. However, on the front porch was a card and gift. We opened the card and read that the gift-giver wanted to remain anonymous4
; he or she just wanted to help us get through a rough time by cheering us up.
In the gift bag was a cassette of favorite Christmas music, which was in a little cardboard Christmas tree. The card described it as being "a cartridge5
in a pine tree," a twist on the "partridge in a pear tree" verse in the song, "The Twelve Days of Christmas." We thought that it was a very clever gift, and the thoughtfulness of our "elf" touched our hearts. We put the cassette in our player and, song by song, the spirit of Christmas began to warm our hearts.
That was the beginning of a series of gifts from the clever giver, one for each day until Christmas. Each gift followed the theme of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" in a creative way. The kids especially liked "seven swans a-swimming," which was a basket of swan-shaped soaps plus passes to the local swimming pool, giving the kids something to look forward to when the warm days of spring arrived. "Eight maids a-milking" included eight bottles of chocolate milk, eggnog and regular milk in glass bottles with paper faces, handmade aprons6
and caps. Every day was something very special. The "five golden rings" came one morning just in time for breakfast - five glazed7
doughnuts just waiting to be eaten.
We would get calls from our family, neighbors and friends who would want to know what we had received that day. Together, we would chuckle8
at the ingenuity9
at the thoughtfulness as we enjoyed each surprise. We were so caught up in the excitement and curiosity of what would possibly come next, that our grief didn't have much of a chance to rob us of the spirit of Christmas. What our elf did was absolutely miraculous11
Each year since then, as we decorate our Christmas tree, we place on it the decorations we received that Christmas while we play the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas." We give thanks for our elf who was, we finally realized, our very own Christmas angel. We never did find out who it was, although we have our suspicions. We actually prefer to keep it that way. It remains12
and magical experience - as mysterious and blessed as the very first Christmas.