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Elvish host brings holiday cheer

A tradition dating to 1959 has survived time and tragedy.

Keirnan's seven Christmas trees are just a backdrop for her elf collection, which includes, from left, a 2-inch-tall Madame Alexander elf, a "Gypsy Elf," and an elf named Jolly.
Keirnan's seven Christmas trees are just a backdrop for her elf collection, which includes, from left, a 2-inch-tall Madame Alexander elf, a "Gypsy Elf," and an elf named Jolly.Read more

Christmas lives in Technicolor at Bethanne Keirnan's Pleasanton, Calif., home.

A half-dozen trees of all sizes and colors are bedecked with ornaments, candy canes, and anything else that strikes Keirnan's fancy. But it is the elves that are at the center of the extravaganza.

Grinning elves, winking elves, smirking elves. They are dangled and draped on the trees, tabletops and furniture. They dance across the shelves and floors. They wave to visitors from corners and beneath plants.

The elves know they have found a home with Keirnan, and it has been that way for almost 50 years, save one dark Christmas when it seemed that no elf was welcome and that the spirit of the holiday would never live in Keirnan's heart again.

Her elvish connection dates to 1959, when she was in junior high school and the task of keeping her younger brother amused and in line for Christmas fell to her and her older sister. That was the year Keirnan's sister, Kathleen, received an early gift, a book about Uncle Mistletoe, the loyal associate of none other than Santa Claus.

Uncle Mistletoe, a creation of the Marshall Field department store, described the title character's role in helping to keep an eye on all children so that Santa would know whether they'd been good or bad. He visited homes to watch unseen, and tied bells to presents and the tree as tiny alarms of unauthorized snooping.

The sisters loved the story and used it as inspiration to create a magical world for their brother, Clyde.

"We wanted to make my brother happy, to give him a fantasy." And, Keirnan says, with an elfin smile, "to make sure that he'd be good."

They dressed Kathleen's favorite doll in her summer capris and top, and fashioned a green felt elf hat for her. Then they took turns staging elf sightings for Clyde. One sister would hide behind the couch and inch the doll into view. At night, they would scatter treats to reward Clyde for his good behavior. The girls had as much fun as their brother, and a family tradition was born.

When Keirnan married and started her own family, the spirit of Uncle Mistletoe came with her.

"Christmas is a time for magic," she says. And she did her best to keep it going.

But Christmas magic can't touch everything. Keirnan bore three children and watched helplessly as they died, two from congenital birth defects and one, a precious, laughing daughter, from a brain tumor. Julie died before she reached the age of 1, and her death came just before Christmas.

"I thought I would always hate Christmas," Keirnan says.

The days that followed were a blur. Keirnan and her husband wandered around in a fog of pain, doing little more than going through the motions and trying to figure out how to live with their loss.

Traveling on autopilot, they found themselves at the mall one day. Christmas shoppers laden with presents bustled about. Christmas carols played. Children stood in line to have their pictures taken with Santa and to whisper their wish lists.

In the midst of all this cheer were two people whose misery knew no bounds. And through tear-clouded eyes, Keirnan took in the scene until finally she saw something that broke through to her heart.

Ornaments, hanging from the ceiling, caressed a memory. Their jewel tones seemed so familiar, and Keirnan saw the Uncle Mistletoe book clearly in her mind's eye.

She remembered the story, and her siblings. Remembered planning the next Uncle Mistletoe adventure, and giggling with her conspirator. She remembered the look of awe and delight on her brother's innocent, believing face.

And Christmas was reborn for her.

Although Keirnan will always wonder what Christmas might have been had her children lived, she has moved forward.

The couple adopted a son and daughter, and now enjoy the looks of wonder and amazement on the faces of their grandchildren.

Elves have been a part of Keirnan's life for almost 50 years. They represent not only the spirit of the season, but the spirit of Keirnan herself.

"There is so much pain and hurt in the world, why not have a little fantasy?" Keirnan says.

And so she has her Christmas elves. And elves for spring, autumn and summer, too.

"I want to inspire people to do something fun and magical."