A few years ago, my family acquired a set of plush elves who magically appear each year on Dec. 1 with advent calendars. They spend the remainder of the month bringing sweet notes and occasional surprises and suggesting kind deeds the kids can do in the spirit of the season.
To my children, who range in age from 5 to 10, the elves’ annual residency is an integral part of our holiday season, as essential as hot cocoa adorned with candy canes and Will Ferrell adorned with yellow tights.
I, however, struggled with the upkeep of their visits, from their interactive notes that required constant attention to their random and annoying gifts (looking at you, snowman slime). To me, they were like tedious, judgmental houseguests who make demands and refuse to leave. Sometimes, I’ll admit, I wished they’d miss their flight from the North Pole.
But this year, those two little elves with pointy ears and jingle-bell shoes saved Christmas, and I’ll never say a bad word about them again.
At the beginning of this school year, my 10-year-old daughter came home talking about a new friend. They had bonded over a shared love of cheerleading and Ariana Grande and wanted to have a play date.
In the weeks to come, I would learn the girls had another thing in common: foster care. Her friend was in foster care and living with foster parents in our neighborhood, and our house has been a licensed foster home for the past four years.
I was surprised. My daughter has spent almost half her life sharing her home with foster children, and her 5-year-old brother was adopted out of foster care last year. Surely she of all people knew that to love a child in foster care is to look potential heartbreak right in the face.
And yet their understanding of the foster care system only deepened their friendship. Because when the trampoline tricks had ended and the carnival rides had come to a stop, they could have discussions that included words like CPS, adoption and termination, and neither thought it was strange at all.
Then, on a day when her friend was scheduled to come home with us from school, we learned abruptly that she was instead being transferred to a new place. Our requests to keep her in town, even possibly to move her into our house, fell on deaf ears.
My daughter stayed strong during their brief goodbye, and we made it to the Starbucks parking lot before we both started bawling.
I cried because of the injustice of a system where children disappearing is not outrageous but commonplace. She cried because she had lost her best friend.
No matter what her dad or I said, it wasn’t enough to mend her heartbreak. Instead, she turned to the only other ones who had borne witness to it all and might understand: the elves.
Any tween questions she was previously pondering about the origin of the elves and their magic faded away as she poured her heart into letters to them.
"You probably know what happened because you see and hear everything, so would you mind giving (my friend) a surprise? I know barely anything but please, I think it will put a smile on her face," she wrote in one letter.
The elves wrote back immediately with their own letters detailing the importance of friendship and assuring her, as we had been trying to do, that there was nothing she could have done to prevent her friend’s move.
"You are," they told her, "a true friend."
Only because of their notes did we see start to see our daughter’s spirit return and the light in her eyes shine again.
"Do you ever read something and think they were crying when they were writing it?" our daughter asked one afternoon after reading another letter from the elves. "I know I sound like a crazy person."
It didn’t sound crazy to me at all.
Then she asked for permission to break one of our house rules about not picking up the elves so that she could give them a hug.
"It’s heart-touching," she said. "They just really made me feel better."
As of this week, our elves have moved from their usual place on the counter to a new front-and-center spot on the mantel, a fitting promotion for these annoying houseguests-turned-sage advisers who delivered one of the most special gifts this holiday season — hope.
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