12 Nights of Kindness PRINT INSTRUCTIONS
12 Nights of Kindness is a fun family experience that teaches kids to be givers of kindness by pairing them with someone in their own neighborhood who needs a little holiday cheer. Leaving a small gift every night for 12 nights on the porch of someone in need offers a delightful lesson in compassion, and leaves both giver and receive with memories they'll treasure for life. Click here for free instructions and printables to start your own family tradition of spreading kindness to others.
I love the holiday season—it’s my favorite time of year. But I’ve never forgotten how hard those first few years were after losing our daughter. It’s been 9 years now and most of the time I have a jingle in my holiday step but I also give myself something to look forward to that really helps—the family tradition we call the 12 Nights of Kindness.
The concept is to teach kids that giving is just as fun as receiving, and simple acts of kindness and compassion can lift the spirit of someone struggling through the holiday season.
How it works is you pick someone in the neighborhood who could use a little cheer. Beginning December 13, each night for 12 nights you leave a secret gift paired with a poem based on the 12 days of Christmas on the neighbor’s porch. Christmas Eve, the last day, is the big reveal when you come clean with the neighbor and offer the 12th gift along with warm, gentle hugs.
We started this tradition 14 years ago, long before we lost Aly. I loved the idea of teaching the kids the joys of giving and they loved the notion of sneaking around the neighborhood, and we adopted the tradition as our own.
Our first task was to decide which neighbors needed the most cheer. A few months earlier, neighbor Tom’s wife died of breast cancer. We all agreed Tom 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 cold night. Trudging softly through the fresh snow toward Tom’s, the quiet evening coupled with moonlit snow created an enchanting winter wonderland. It was just beautiful, and I cherished memories in the making.
When we reached Tom’s house, I watched from the street while the kids snuck to his front door. Our daughter placed the first gift, a partridge ornament, quietly on Tom’s porch as our son rang the doorbell. Hiding in the shadows until the coast was clear, we managed to make a clean getaway in spite of our muffled giggles.
Returning home, we warmed our hands around hot cocoa and our hearts around the notion that our nightly gifts might cheer Tom through his season of mourning. With the first night now behind us, we eagerly looked forward to each evening.
The next eleven nights flew by and soon it was Christmas Eve, the final day when we had to reveal our identity. Truth be told, I was nervous. I worried our nightly surprises 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 arranged a dozen home-made cookies on a festive plate and covered it with red cellophane. I 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 rang the doorbell.
When Tom opened the door, I belted out:
We wish you a merry Christmas
We wish you a merry Christmas
We wish you a merry Christmas,
and a happy new year!
My family swears I’m tone deaf but I was determined to set a good example for the kids. I exuberantly sang the first few words until realizing I was solo—my elves just stood there with wide open eyes and 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?
Quickly, I decided to introduce ourselves and explain that we were responsible for the secret gifts, hand Tom the cookies, and leave as quick as possible. After all, it was Christmas Eve and here we were intruding on his undoubtedly tender emotions.
But I soon discovered I had nothing to fear at all. Tom was crying because the nightly gifts gave him something to look forward to, and now they were coming to an end! Mission accomplished.
That first year proved a wonderful experience and we continued choosing a different neighbor each year until 2009, when tragedy struck our own family. That was the year when our 15-year-old daughter died in a car accident. Caught in my own fog of grief, I had no desire to carry on the family fun. 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 that giving is good for the giver.
When our grandson turned 9, it was his turn to learn the joys of giving. I reinstated the family tradition, and just like it had been in years past, it was magical for us all.
Two months ago, we lost a neighbor who died in the family driveway. Three generations live in the family home, and they are this year’s unsuspecting recipient. I know our secret gifts won’t cure the family’s grief, but the nightly acts of kindness will offer respite from the pain just as it did all those years ago for neighbor Tom.
The true beauty of the 12 Nights of Kindness is that it is more than just a little holiday fun. It’s a magical way to teach children the joys of giving and offers important lessons in compassion and kindness. Best of all, it lifts the hearts of both givers and receivers and creates memories to treasure for years to come.
Lynda Cheldelin Fell