The most important gift of all

Editor’s note: This is the 12th of a 12-chapter holiday tale running daily until Christmas. Parents are encouraged to read aloud to their children.

Joy awoke Christmas morning to the sounds of merriment filling the air. In the common room, children were talking and laughing, and Christmas music blared from the radio.

A few kids lounged on the sofa and the floor in front of the fireplace, drinking mugs of cocoa with marshmallows and giggling about their gifts. Most of the others were scattered on the floor by the tree, ripping open brightly-wrapped packages.

As Joy made her way to the tree, she smiled and thought about how just hours ago she’d sat in Santa’s Workshop making other children’s Christmas wishes come true. Seeing how happy they were made it all worth it.

But her smile faded as she reached the tree and saw there were no presents left to hand out. There was nothing for her.

For just a moment, sadness and confusion swept through her. After everything, how could Santa have forgotten her? Then it hit her. The entire adventure at the North Pole was her gift. Santa had given her the strength to accept the life she had and not long for what she didn’t, and that was the biggest and most important gift she could have gotten.

“Good morning, Joy,” Mrs. Duncan said. She smiled at Joy, and her smile widened as she glanced at the new ornament on the tree. “We’ve been waiting for you! You haven’t opened your present yet.”

“There’s not a present for me this year Mrs. Duncan,” she said quietly so the other kids couldn’t hear. “But that’s OK!” she quickly added when she saw Mrs. Duncan about to interrupt. “There are things more important than presents, like sharing the Christmas spirit with people you love.”

Mrs. Duncan’s eyes glistened. “Oh, sweet Joy. Your gift doesn’t come from under the tree this year. It’s too special for that.” She plucked a long white envelope from the tree’s branches and handed it to Joy.

“Open it.”

Joy opened the envelope and pulled out a thick piece of paper, printed with a lot of tiny words. But the ones at the top of the page were written in big letters and Joy read them over and over again, her heart beating faster.

“Certificate of Adoption,” it said in big fancy letters.

“I don’t understand,” Joy said slowly, not taking her eyes off of the paper.

Mrs. Duncan gently took Joy’s hand and led her down the hall, into her office, where a very nervous-looking couple sat in front of the desk. Mrs. Duncan closed the door behind them but didn’t let go of Joy’s hand.

“Joy, this is Emily and Michael Nickolas. They’ve been working with our agency, and they would like to adopt you.” She paused, squeezing Joy’s hand. “And if you’d like, you can even go home with them today.”

Joy stared at the couple in shock. The man and woman in front of her were the same ones that she’d seen inside the glowing snowflake before her adventure at the North Pole. Right then she knew, without a doubt, this was always meant to happen. All the failed foster homes were just leading up to this.

“It’s so wonderful to meet you, Joy.” Mrs. Nickolas spoke with a shaky, but kind voice. “You can call us Emily and Michael, or Mr. and Mrs. Nickolas…whatever you’re comfortable with. You can even call us Mom and Dad, not that you have to!” she added quickly “But maybe one day…” Her husband took her hand and smiled at her before smiling at Joy.

“We’re a little nervous,” he chuckled “As I’m sure you are. We want you to know we’re patient. If you’re not ready to come home with us today then we can…”

Before he could finish, Joy flew across the room and threw her arms around the both of them. The three of them shed tears and embraced for a moment before Joy pulled away and smiled at them, wiping her cheeks.

“I’m ready,” she whispered, and Emily’s smile was so bright it could light up the room.

Joy turned back to Mrs. Duncan. She wrapped her arms around her waist, and Mrs. Duncan dropped to her knees to embrace Joy tightly.

“Will you come visit me?” Joy whispered in her ear, and Mrs. Duncan pulled back with a teary smile.

“Of course, I will. I’m going to miss you so much,” she said. “It won’t be the same without my sweet Joy here. It’s hard to think that this will no longer be your home.”

“Home doesn’t have to be a building.” Joy placed her hand on Mrs. Duncan’s heart. “It can be right here.”

“Merry Christmas, Joy,” Mrs. Duncan said, wiping away tears.

“Merry Christmas, Mrs. Duncan. Thank you for saving me.”

“And thank you for saving me, sweetheart,” Mrs. Duncan replied.

Nothing else needed to be said between the two of them that day. Joy turned to her new family, grinning so hard her cheeks ached.

No Christmas could ever top this one. Joy smiled to herself and said a silent thank you to Santa. Her heart was overflowing with faith and love, and she would never again forget the magic of true Christmas spirit and what it’s all about.

She had received her very own Christmas miracle.

And it all started with one magic little snowflake.