Have you heard of The 12 Nights of Christmas? Also known as Secret Santa, I came across this concept years ago while reading “In Search of the Real Spirit of Christmas” by Dan Schaeffer. In the back was a chapter describing his family tradition modeled after the 12 days of Christmas. Beginning on December 13 and ending on Christmas Eve, the family left a treat along with a cute poem on a neighbor’s porch every evening. The whole idea was to teach kids that giving was just as fun as receiving.

Twelve nights sneaking around the neighborhood playing ding dong ditch? How fun! I especially loved the idea of helping my kids learn the joys of giving at such an impressionable age. And so that December gave birth to a new family tradition for the Fells.

Now our oldest daughter was away at college and our teenage son was busy with high school activities, so that left our two youngest as santas. As I explained what we were embarking on and why, they were thrilled with the idea of sneaking around the neighborhood for any reason. At age 10, our daughter much preferred to be an elf as she was female and Santa was, well, male. But with her 8-year-old brother as Santa, an elf’s superior, that wouldn’t do either. To keep the village peace, we became elves instead of Santas.

Now as a family of six, we were on a budget. Armed with a shopping list, my first stop was our local dollar store. Thankfully, this was our only stop—everything we needed was there. Taking home our supplies, we got to work printing the poems and preparing the bags while the kids giggled at the notion of 12 nights of mischief over Christmas vacation.

It was already December, and the first night was fast approaching. Fairly new to the neighborhood, we discussed who should be the lucky neighbor. A couple months earlier, I heard that Neighbor Tom had lost his wife to cancer. She was well loved by all who knew her, and I couldn’t imagine what the holidays must be like for Tom and their two children. To my mind, it was clear that Tom’s home could use small doses of nightly cheer. The kids quickly agreed, and the matter was settled.

On the evening of December 13, my two elves giggled nervously as we bundled up and headed out into the night. Sneaking through the quiet snow-filled streets of our neighborhood with a flashlight was as magical for the kids as it was for me; I treasured our memories in the making. Also, I had never realized just how quiet—and beautiful—the cold, deserted streets were at night. It was like another world waited for us each evening, a peaceful, enchanting winter wonderland that could only be experienced on foot. The magic was heightened when the kids giggled over my clumsiness in the dark. Note to self: Get more flashlights.


T’was the first night of Christmas

And all through your house

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

Except suddenly one little soul did appear

It’s your Little Elf, and he brings holiday cheer!

Tonight it’s a partridge for your pear tree

And tomorrow, who knows, You must wait and see

So turn on your porch light each evening with care

And know that your gift soon will be there

But don’t try to catch him or he’ll disappear!


Upon returning home from our adventure each evening, we warmed our hands around a mug of hot cocoa, and warmed our hearts around the whim that our nightly surprises might bring cheer to Tom’s family.

The next eleven nights flew by and soon it was Christmas Eve, the 12th day when we had to reveal our identity. I suddenly became nervous. I had never actually met Tom, and worried that maybe our nightly gifts had been a bit too much for the family’s fragile emotions. But there was no backing down now; we had to finish. That afternoon we arranged a dozen homemade treats on a small holiday plate, covered it with red plastic wrap, 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.

Twelve drummers drumming,

they play a happy beat

For this should fill your tummy,

it’s your Christmas treat!


We had such a good time,

being your friend

We’re really sorry our visit must end.

So we wish you a wonderful Christmas day

And a year free of troubles, for this we’ll pray.


When Tom opened the door, we nervously started singing:

We wish you a merry Christmas

We wish you a merry Christmas

We wish you a merry Christmas,

and a happy new year!


Well, I ended up singing that cheery first verse by myself because my elves stood glued to the porch with mouths frozen shut. Realizing I was on my own and because my children say I’m tone deaf, I quickly decided that one verse was more than enough for this poor family.

As soon as I stopped singing I realized that Tom and his two children had tears in their eyes! Oh, dear. Was my voice that bad, or was our entire mission just one big flop?

Quickly, I decided the best way to handle this was to explain that we were the Little Elves responsible for the nightly treats, and then leave the poor family alone. After all, it was Christmas Eve and here we were intruding on their fragile emotions.

But I soon discovered that I had nothing to fear at all: they were crying because of how much they loved the little gifts, and now it was coming to an end! It turns out that Tom and his children not only enjoyed the element of surprise, but the nightly anticipation was a wonderful respite from the constant sadness, and lifted their spirits. Mission accomplished!

That first year proved a wonderful experience and we continued the tradition, choosing a different neighbor each year, until tragedy struck our own family. In 2009, my 15-year-old elf, Aly, died in a car accident while coming home from a swim meet. Caught in my own fog of grief, I had no reserve left in my tank to carry on our family fun with our youngest. With a broken heart, our once beloved tradition came to an unexpected end.

In the years since losing Aly, in fits and starts our family has learned to laugh and feel joy 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.

Now that our grandson is 9—the perfect age to become an elf—reinstating the old family tradition will offer both giver and receiver a nightly dose of good cheer, and enrich our holidays in magical ways just as it did in years past. I already know who this year’s lucky neighbor will be, and our gift bags are assembled and ready for delivery starting December 13.

Project Little Elf was inspired by that first year with Tom and his children. Having faced loss since then, I now fully understand how the holidays can feel less than cheery, and how a little kindness can go a long way. And nobody needs it more than the bereaved facing their first holidays.

If you too would like to teach your children how to be givers of kindness and learn the joys of giving, all the instructions and printables to begin your own family tradition can be found at .

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

Happy holidays!


Lynda Cheldelin Fell is an emotional healing expert and award-winning author of 20 books including the 5-star Grief Diaries book series featuring poignant stories of men and women searching for healing, hope and life’s little silver linings. Her articles are published around the world including Women’s Health magazine, New York Daily News, and L.A. Daily News. Learn more at .