AT THE HELM: SNEAKING AROUND AT CHRISTMAS TIME

December 14, 2007 11:00 pm

Cue the theme music from Mission Impossible:

Clad in dark clothing, the 3-year-old girl and her father tiptoe in the dark across the woman's lawn. They slink onto the porch – any sound might give them away – and lay the secret package on the door step.

The father signals the girl and she pushes the doorbell. They bolt off the porch toward the get-away car, driven by mom. But my foot hits a sprinkler or a rock – I don't know, it's dark – and I sail through the air, skidding face-down across the wet grass. I pick myself up and make it to the car just as the front porch light comes on and the front door opens. We speed off into the night, laughing all the way! Another successful mission.

It's fun being a secret Santa.

Last Christmas, the target of our clandestine Christmas operation was a friend who had lost her husband earlier that year. We hoped that delivering a card, cookies or a small knick-knack every day for 12 straight days would brighten her nights and let her know somebody cared.

It did.

And at the same time, my wife and I were hoping it would instill in our daughter the spirit of giving. It seemed to work: She enjoyed the nightly missions and looked forward to the next one.

This year, we're trying to determine who our next target will be. Sadly, there are many we know who could do with a nightly holiday pick-me-up.

There are dozens of ways to offer anonymous service to a deserving person or family, and build a child's sense of charity at the same time. Here are a few ideas you and your family may want to consider this Christmas season.

•When a child is caught doing something kind, such as doing a chore without being asked, giving a sibling a hug, or taking the dog for a walk, he or she will receive money (a quarter, a dollar) that the child can then place in the family "Giving Jar." Then, right before Christmas, the child can purchase food or clothing using money from the Giving Jar, or just donate the money to a person, family or organization needing help. Let the child decide where to donate the money.

•Several organizations sponsor coat or cap drives, or sell other clothing and other goods at thrift stores for those less fortunate. Make it a family tradition to spend a night – with holiday music playing – sifting through closets to find and donate unwanted clothing.

•How about a Christmas Day giveaway? After everyone has opened their presents, invite each child and grownup to choose one item to donate to someone less fortunate. Then, as a family, take a trip to a homeless shelter, battered women's shelter, or a family in your area, and anonymously offer them your gifts.

Or, you can do what my family does: Be a secret Santa.

It doesn't take a lot of time, effort or money. Remember, it's the thought, not the gift, that matters most.

(Cue the theme music for Mission Impossible again:)

Your mission, should you chose to accept it, is to bring a bit of holiday cheer into somebody's life. Just try not to trip over a sprinkler in the process. If you do, keep on running.

This column will self-destruct in 10, 9, 8 ....

Merry Christmas!