Over the years, I have collected many enjoyable Christmas memories. One of my favorites is the day when I – dressed as a holiday elf – met Nicole, an 8-year-old homeless girl.

It was a staged event organized by one of my coworkers at The Phoenix Gazette. There were several of us appointed to wear the outfit and assigned to a particular child. I was to be Nicole’s elf. When we were introduced, she took my hand and grasped it, not paying any attention to the fact that the hand belonged to a man dressed as an elf.

When I arrived, she approached me and inquired, “Are you one of Santa’s older elves?” She had noticed earlier, but she was kind about it when she didn’t accentuate “older.” Back at the office, several of my associates had not been so considerate.

When word spread that some of us were going to dress up and help Santa at a Christmas party for the kids at a school for the homeless, they posted a sentry near my office, which doubled as a dressing room. We couldn’t slip out the back way, instead having to parade through the newsroom in a full elf costume, which consisted of green knickers, red suspenders, funny hats, green pointy-toed shoes and red-and-white striped socks. Left with no other choice, we marched through the newsroom, took the taunts and snickers in stride and headed for the school.

"When I arrived, Nicole approached me and inquired, are you one of Santa’s older elves?"

The children had been taken to a nearby park so they wouldn’t see our arrival, giving us time to prepare the area that served as a classroom. Santa (one of the sportswriters) perched himself in the center of the room so he’d be easily accessible to all 10 of the youngsters. We elves hung back, accepting our roles as second fiddles to the big red guy. When the door opened, and the kids came in, we yelled out, “Merry Christmas” in our best elf voices.

The children didn’t say anything. They just stood there, wide-eyed and getting wider-eyed as they stared at Santa. But in a moment, those 20 eyes and small arms rushed forward and reached out to the sportswriter in the red suit and fake beard and smiling faces lit up the room. The children sat on his lap, pulled his beard and told him their wishes, momentarily unconcerned about their meager situation.

And then, the most wondrous thing happened. The pretend elves, although jaded by the real life they dealt with every day as reporters and editors, joined the party’s organizers to sing Christmas carols. And, quite frankly, we weren’t bad, considering we were unskilled labor.

After an agonizingly long wait for the honored guests, it was time to distribute the presents. Each of us was assigned a child as guardian elves, so Nicole and I became a team. She was tall and rather spindly, and when she got excited, the words tumbled from her mouth at the speed of Warp Factor 9. Anxious but restrained, she squeezed my hand and waited with monumental patience as Santa called out the names.

“Tom,” he intoned in his well-rehearsed Santa voice, and Nicole’s hand closed even tighter on mine because she knew she would be called next. But she wasn’t next. Amy was next. Then Terrence. Then Darien. But Nicole’s tiny hand never relaxed.

Finally, Santa got it right. “Nicole,” he said in a gruff voice, or as fierce as a large sportswriter pretending to be Santa could make his voice sound.

Nicole did not merely leave my side. She exploded. She flew in a hundred different directions at once and was at Santa’s lap before the final syllable of her name had passed his lips. She took the package, hugged Santa, raced back to me and tore the wrappings off all in one motion.

“Clothes!” she cried. “I got clothes!” It was a denim skirt and a pink blouse, decorated with globs of squirted paint. Nicole raised them from the wrapping and held them against herself. She shut her eyes and rocked slowly back and forth. In our combined 60-or-so-odd-years on this earth, neither of us had ever felt better about anything other than this moment.

She opened her eyes and asked if I would wait for her in that exact spot, then raced from the room. When she returned, she was wearing her new skirt and her new blouse, and she had left the price tags on to show that they were new, not the hand-me-downs she usually received.

Things settled down once all the children had received and opened their gifts, and the Kool-Aid and sugar cookies were properly dispensed. We elves hung around for a little while to help with the clean-up, then had to leave and go back to the real world. We were still in our elf suits when we got back to the office. But now, we strode through the newsroom with unconcealed pride.

– Former Valley newspaperman Sam Lowe now writes about his travels across Arizona, the U.S. and the globe.