As a young girl, Alanna Parke Kvale helped her mother gather food and gifts for a family in need— and it became her most cherished Christmas ever
“She stopped at the side, put her hands up to her face and began weeping”
My father was in the Air Force, and we were stationed in Louisiana. We had been shopping for the enormous Christmas feast Mother always made and had just finished bringing in the groceries. We were sitting at the kitchen table having milk and cookies when she first mentioned Mrs. Neuwirth and her children.
“We really must do something for the poor woman. Five children to feed, and it looks like they’ll be having no Christmas at all.” I was 12 years old, and I couldn’t imagine anything as terrible as having no Christmas.
Mother snapped her fingers, stood up suddenly and began to pace across the floor. “I’ve got it! We’ll give them their own Christmas, right down to the tree, stockings for the children and dinner!”
It sounded like a great idea, but before I could ask how we were to accomplish this miracle—for we weren’t rich ourselves—Mother was on the phone talking to some of our neighbors and arranging a get-together to discuss the problem.
One of the neighbors suggested we invite them to Christmas dinner or just show up with food for the family. My mother reminded her of how embarrassing that would be for the poor woman, and that we should allow her a little dignity.
“How about if we give them Christmas anonymously, and I mean everything, right down to the tree and gifts, and even wrapping paper with bows?” Mother suggested.
“None of us is rich, my dear. Just how are we supposed to give that family Christmas?” This was from Mrs. Smith from down the street at the corner.
“If we all pitch in, it won’t be very much for each of us. All of us can buy extra canned goods; we’ll just pool our resources when it comes to the food. It won’t hurt to bake an extra pie or an extra batch of cookies. We share with each other, so why not with them?”
But how were they to provide gifts for the children? Again, Mother had the answer. “Everybody, look through your attic and basement. How about all those toys you’ve packed away? They don’t necessarily have to be brand-new.”
One lady even volunteered to provide a tree for the family. The meeting broke up soon afterward, and the ladies scattered to do their part. I’ll bet a lot of attics and basements got cleaned up as women scoured their dwellings for things to share with the Neuwirths. We all had to hurry; Christmas was only a week away.
My father produced an enormous box, which sat at the far end of our kitchen. Every day, a neighbor would drop something into it to add to the pile of goodies intended for the Neuwirths. There were canned goods and baked goods, wrapping paper and bows and stuffed toys and dolls for the younger children. Mother even found a watch still in its box. It was one my father hadn’t liked and refused to wear. It would be perfect for Mrs. Neuwirth’s oldest son, who was 13. Soon, the box was full to overflowing with wondrous things, except a turkey.
Two days before Christmas, my mother began to despair about not having a turkey in the box. Even if the whole neighborhood put the money together, there were no turkeys left at the commissary; Mother had checked. She was standing in the kitchen pondering the problem when Mrs. Smith appeared at the back door with a huge bag. Up to this point, Mrs. Smith had only contributed a few cans of peas and some napkins.
Mother opened the bag, and inside was the biggest, fattest turkey ever! Mother’s eyes grew large, but she quickly recovered and hugged Mrs. Smith.
“Oh, my dear, that was the last item we needed for the box. Thank you so much! Where on earth did you find one? The commissary was completely out.”
Mrs. Smith turned a startling shade of red and seemed at a loss for words. Then she patted her hair straight, coughed and said, “Not at all, not at all. It was no problem whatsoever. I discovered it in the back of my freezer— didn’t even realize I had it.
I was defrosting the freezer, and there it was.”
And all the while, she was gesturing with her hands and seemed quite flustered. She wasn’t used to being caught making a generous gesture, I guess.
Mother just smiled and thanked her again, and the woman beat a hasty retreat back to her own house.
By Christmas Eve, the box was ready and wrapped as a giant present. The neighbor who had provided the tree helped my father cart everything over to the
Neuwirths’ front porch.
They snuck over and began hauling that cumbersome box up the steps to the front porch, trying to be quiet so Mrs. Neuwirth wouldn’t hear and catch them. Finally, everything was ready. They propped the tree against the house. My father rang the bell, and then sprinted off the porch like a small boy playing a prank to join his friend behind a bush. The rest of the neighborhood was watching from their windows.
Mrs. Neuwirth opened the door and stared for a moment at the huge box, and then quickly shut the front door. Perplexed, my father was about to go up and ring the bell again when the door opened slowly. Mrs. Neuwirth came back out on the porch and walked around the box, no doubt looking for some clue as to where it had come from. She peeked inside, curious about the contents, and gasped as she saw all the goodies so lovingly placed inside.
She stopped at the side, put her hands up to her face and began weeping. I knew she had read the note tacked to the box that said: Merry Christmas to the Neuwirths, From Santa Claus.
To my knowledge, Mrs. Neuwirth never discovered who had left that gigantic package on her doorstep that Christmas Eve. But to me, that was the best Christmas ever, for I had watched a community come together to show the true spirit of Christmas to a family in need.
—Alanna Parke Kvale