A blast of cold air hit Elle as she exited her Fifth Avenue building.
“Do I walk the fifteen blocks to 59th street or take the M4 bus?” Elle said out loud.
With 20 degree temperatures in New York City and a serious threat of snow, she bolted towards the bus stop.
Elle boarded the bus, grateful for the immediate warmth. She sat down and began to go over her mental list of the things she still needed for Christmas.
With 24 people coming, planning was key, but Elle looked forward to every aspect of her family Christmas.
After a quick trip to Saks, Elle walked over to Rockefeller Center to watch the ice skaters and look at the beautiful Christmas tree. She walked past the tree almost every day and never tired of seeing the lights.
For Elle, her love of Christmas began with a tree, 35 years ago. She never forgot that first tree. Elle who was 11, Billy and Caroline, 10-year-old twins and nine-year-old Steve were four foster children living at Mrs. Weiss’s rowhouse in the Mayfair section of Philadelphia. All four kids were abandoned at an early age, left without any trace of family.
One day about a week before Christmas, Elle asked Mrs. Weiss if she could get a Christmas tree for the small house. Mrs. Weiss said that she didn’t care, but not to expect any help from her.
Mrs. Weiss was in her late 60’s, disgruntled by life and dependent on the money she got from child care. She did not believe in holidays, birthdays or extravagances in any way. She remained detached from the children with the exception of basic meal preparation which left the children hungry most of the time.
No one complained. The four kids were just happy to have a place to live, and something to eat.
At 11 years of age, Elle was exceptionally smart with impressive leadership skills. She gathered the kids together saying, “I don’t know about you, but I am sick of never celebrating Christmas like other people. I know we are poor, but we can make some type of Christmas for ourselves. It is up to us and we can do anything once we put our minds to it.”
Elle looked directly at Billy, Caroline and Steve. “I have an idea. On my way home from school tomorrow, I am going to ask Mr. Flynn at the Christmas tree lot if we can have a free tree, if there are any left on Christmas Eve. I know he is mean, but it will not hurt to ask.”
“Great idea,” Billy said happily. “We all can go with you to pick it up.”
“We also need some type of Christmas dinner. Mrs. Weiss will not do anything but if we put our heads together, I bet we can come up with something special,”
The next day Elle proudly walked up to Mr. Flynn and asked him about getting a free tree. “If I have one left at 7:30 on Christmas Eve, you can have it,”
Mr. Flynn replied.
Elle was excited and shared the news with her foster brothers and sister. Her next task was Christmas dinner. Before she went about gathering food, she needed to find out if they had the necessary pots and pans for cooking. She rummaged through the kitchen and found a few she could use.
All the kids were excited and filled with ideas. “I wish we could have biscuits with lots of butter and a big turkey,” said Billy.
“Oh, that sounds good,” Steve said. “Maybe some stuffing too.”
“I would love to have a nice pie or some Christmas cookies like the other kids at school,” added Caroline.
Everyone knew what they wanted. It was up to Elle to figure out how to get it.
None of the kids had any money, plus they were too young for jobs.
Elle decided to seek the advice of her teacher Mrs. Myers.
After explaining the situation, Elle asked, “Mrs. Myers, do you have any ideas? Maybe I could work for someone after school to get the food.”
Mrs. Myers’ heart went out to Elle who impressed her with steely determination.
“As you know, we are having a Holiday pageant here at school this coming Saturday afternoon. We need help setting everything up and then taking the chairs down,” Mrs. Myers said.
“How about if you give me a list of the things you need. If you, your brothers and sister come help us set up, see the show, then take the stuff down, we will get you the food.”
Elle screamed with joy. Her Christmas was finally coming together. She raced home to tell the others.
Christmas spirit soared into high gear with Elle’s news. She quickly made a list of the things she needed and gave it to Mrs. Myers the following day.
“Elle, who is going to cook all the food?” Mrs. Myers asked.
“I am, but everyone will help me,” Elle responded.
“Do you know how to cook a turkey?” Mrs. Myers asked.
“No, but I can read. I figured, if you can read, you can cook. I got a recipe out of a book for the turkey and stuffing,” Elle said.
Mrs. Myers laughed. She was filled with admiration for the young girl.
With the food taken care of, Elle checked out the Christmas trees each day. Christmas was on a Monday. By Friday, there were not too many trees left. Elle worried they may not get a tree.
Bright and early Saturday morning, Elle got everyone ready. They went to the school and set up the chairs for the pageant. Afterwards, the teachers offered the kids hot chocolate and Christmas cookies which they eagerly accepted.
The show went well. Billy, Elle, Caroline, and Steve took all the chairs down and lined them in the storage closest. Mrs. Myers told Elle to come to her classroom when they were finished.
Mrs. Myers had five big bags of groceries lined up. She gave Elle a step-by-step instruction sheet for cleaning and cooking the turkey. Elle was very grateful because the other turkey recipe was far more difficult.
“I have a great idea. Why don’t we load the stuff in my car and I will drive it to your house where you can unload it?” Mrs. Myers said.
“Great idea. Thank you very much. We will run home and meet you there,” Elle said. “This is going to be the best Christmas ever.”
Mrs. Myers pulled up to the small run-down rowhouse. While the kids unloaded the groceries, Mrs. Myers was grateful for children like Elle who inspire hope.
When Elle and the kids opened the bags, they found a lot more than they requested. There was a big turkey pan, a turkey, gravy, stuffing mix, cranberry sauce, a cookie sheet and cookie dough, a few bags of vegetables, potatoes, biscuits, butter, eggs and sausage for breakfast, cinnamon rolls and a pumpkin and apple pie, plus cooking instruction for each dish.
Mrs. Myers was thorough and wanted the children to have a wonderful Christmas. They worked hard and deserved it.
“I never saw food like this before,” said Billy. “This is going to be great.”
Mrs. Weiss walked into the kitchen while the children were putting the food away.
“What is all this?” she said coldly.
“We set up the Christmas pageant at school in exchange for the food,” Elle said.
“We are going to make a delicious Christmas dinner. You are going to love it.”
“I’ll take a plate in my room,” Mrs. Weiss responded.
“Okay, but do you mind if we set the table up,” asked Elle.
“I don’t care, just don’t break any more dishes.”
Elle carefully looked for dishes that matched and a tablecloth, but found neither.
“One day, I am going to have a long white table with pretty dishes, candles, napkins and flowers,” Elle said to herself, but for now this is good.
During the day on Christmas eve, Elle, Billy, Caroline and Steve worked together in preparation for their big Christmas dinner.
Billy and Elle followed Mrs. Myers instructions in cleaning the turkey. They placed salt inside, but the bird was too slippery for Elle and Billy to handle. Suddenly, it plunged to the floor, bounced and slid about six feet.
Billy and Steve howled with laughter while Elle hoped the floor was not too dirty.
It took the combined strength of Elle, Billy and Caroline to pick up the bird and thoroughly clean it again. They put it in the pan, then placed the pan in the refrigerator.
“Do you think we can make some of those cookies today?” Steve asked Caroline.
“Why not! That’s a great idea. I know I would love some,” Caroline said as she got to work making the cookies.
The smell of baked cookies filled the house. “I just love Christmas,” Caroline told Elle as she took the last batch from the oven.
With all the activity, Elle noticed it was 6:45.
“Billy, Caroline, Steve, let’s go. We have to get the tree,” Elle said.
The foursome walked the four blocks to the Christmas tree lot. It was just after seven when Mr. Flynn saw the kids.
“I told you 7:30, you are early,” he shouted.
“We just wanted to get here on time, that’s all Mr. Flynn,” Elle said as she noticed he had three or four trees left.
“Since you are already here, which of these trees would you like,” Mr. Flynn said with a huge smile that made all the kids happy.
There was no contest. They all agreed on the biggest and fullest tree. “Do you have a stand for the tree?” Mr. Flynn asked.
“This is the first tree we ever had, I guess I forgot about the stand,” said Elle.
“Here is an old one you can have and it is just the right size,” Mr. Flynn said as he showed the kids how to put the tree in the stand.
“What are you going to decorate the tree with?” he asked.
“We just wanted a tree, we never hoped for ornaments or anything,” Elle told him.
“I have an idea. I have all these red bows and candy canes you can use to decorate your tree. They are left over, but you are welcome to them,” he said.
Everyone was excited and thanked Mr. Flynn for his kindness and generosity.
“Next year, you children come here and pick out any tree you want for free and you don’t have to wait for Christmas eve.”
Elle, Billy, Caroline and Steve carried their prized tree home. Together they set it up and decorated it with the beautiful red bows and candy canes. They stood back looking in awe at their first Christmas tree.
“It is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen,” Elle said happily to her foster brothers and sister.
The next day, Caroline placed the cookies she made the day before under the tree. She wrapped them in individual plastic bags tied with a red bow so each child would have a special gift on Christmas day.
After breakfast, the four children spent the day preparing their first family Christmas dinner. They followed Mrs. Myers’ instructions and made a sumptuous turkey dinner with all the trimmings.
“I knew we could do it,” a very full Billy told the others.
“So did I,” said Elle. “We should do this every year and make it our family tradition.”
35 years later, the tradition endured. Elle, Billy, Caroline, and Steve, all very successful people with their spouses and children rolled up their sleeves in Elle’s state of the art kitchen to prepare their family Christmas dinner.
The long white table was set with matching dishes, stemware, candles, napkins and flowers while a 12-foot Christmas tree stood tall decorated from top to bottom in red bows and candy canes.