Monday, December 11, 2017

The 12 Nights of Kindness

Have you heard of The 12 Nights of Kindness? Also known as Secret Santa, I came across this concept years ago. Beginning December 13 and ending Christmas Eve, the tradition is to leave a small treat paired with a poem based on the 12 Days of Christmas on a neighbor's porch. The whole idea was to teach kids that giving was just as fun as receiving.

I embraced the concept of helping kids learn the joys of giving, and proposed the idea to our own. It turns out that twelve nights sneaking around the neighborhood wasn’t a hard sell. Our kids were thrilled with the idea of playing a holiday version of ding dong ditch with Mom’s permission, and we adopted the tradition as our own.

Now, our oldest daughter was away at college and our oldest son was a busy high schooler, so that left our two youngest as santas. Our 10-year-old daughter much preferred to be an elf, given that she was female and Santa was, well, male. But that left her 8-year-old brother as Santa—an elf's superior. Well, that wouldn't do either. To keep the village peace, we became elves instead of santas.

As a family of six with one in college, we were on a budget. Armed with a shopping list, my first stop was our local dollar store. This turned out to be our only stop—everything we needed was there. Taking home our supplies, I got to work printing the poems while the kids prepared the bags.

The next matter to settle was deciding who would be the lucky recipient. A few months earlier, neighbor Tom lost his wife to breast cancer. I couldn’t imagine what the holidays must be like for him, and we all agreed his home could use small doses of nightly cheer. The matter was settled.

On the evening of December 13, my two youngest elves bundled up and we headed out into the frosty air. In the darkness of night, the silent snowy neighborhood transformed into an enchanting winter wonderland. Our boots trudging softly through the shimmery white snow was the only sound heard as we made our way to Tom’s house. While I watched from the street, the kids snuck up to his porch, rang the doorbell, and ran to hide until the coast was clear to return to me in the shadows.

Returning home, we warmed our hands around a mug of hot cocoa and our hearts around the notion that our little gifts of kindness might cheer Tom. With our first night now behind us, we eagerly looked forward to each evening, and treasured memories in the making.

The next eleven nights flew by and soon it was Christmas Eve, the 12th day when we had to reveal our identity. 

Truth be told, I was nervous. Not having experienced loss myself, I worried that our nightly treats had been a bit too much for Tom’s fragile emotions. But there was no backing down now. We had to finish. 

That afternoon we festively arranged a dozen homemade cookies on a plate, covered it with red cellophane, taped the final poem to the top and—not trusting my children to walk two blocks with a plate of goodies—we drove to Tom’s house. We climbed out of the car, gathered on his front porch, and I rang the doorbell.

When Tom opened the door, our next task was to sing:

We wish you a merry Christmas
We wish you a merry Christmas
We wish you a merry Christmas,
and a happy new year!

Although I’ve been accused of being tone deaf, I was determined to set a good example for my children. I exuberantly sang the first few words until realizing I was solo—my choiring elves just stood there with mouths frozen shut. I had no choice but to finish on my own, tone deaf and all. That’s when I saw tears in Tom’s eyes. Oh, dear. Was my voice that bad, or was our mission just one big flop?

I quickly decided the most graceful way to handle the situation was to explain we were the elves responsible for the surprise treats, and then leave Tom to his own devices. After all, it was Christmas Eve and here we were intruding on his very tender emotions. 

But I soon discovered I had nothing to fear at all. Tom was crying because he loved the nightly gifts, and now they were coming to an end! It turned out that not only did he enjoy the element of surprise, but the nightly anticipation was a wonderful respite from the constant sadness. 

Mission accomplished.

That first year proved a wonderful experience, and we continued the tradition choosing a different neighbor each year. Until 2009, when tragedy struck our own family. At summer’s end that year, our now 15-year-old elf was killed in a car accident. Caught in my own fog of grief, I had no desire to carry on the family fun with our youngest, now 13. With a broken heart, our beloved tradition came to an unexpected end.

In the years since losing our daughter, our family has learned to laugh again but I’ve never forgotten how bleak those first holidays felt. I’ve also learned that helping others helps my own heart to heal, and how the power of small acts of kindness can go a long way. 

Last year when our grandson was 9, we reinstated the old family tradition. He was the perfect age to become a secret elf, and I knew it would offer us all a nightly dose of good cheer. It proved good fun and once again enriched our holidays just as it had in years past.

This year’s unsuspecting recipient is a neighbor dying of cancer. She loves the holidays, and her home is often decked festively year round. Her warm, bright greeting to the neighborhood will be sorely missed in the years ahead. In the meantime, I hope our nightly surprises bring cheer to her final holiday season. 

Perhaps the real beauty of The 12 Nights of Kindness is that it transcends all ages and situations. One need not be a newly bereaved to benefit from such a tradition. It’s a fun family experience that offers an important life lesson in compassion, and leaves everyone with memories they’ll treasure for life.

To teach your children how to be givers of kindness and learn the joys of giving, or heal your own heart by helping others, all the instructions and printables are right here.

Above all, the nightly trips to a neighbor’s porch is more than just a little holiday fun. It holds the promise of magical memories for all ages, and leaves all involved with the gift of kindness and a heart full of cheer they’ll treasure all year.

Happy holidays!

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