Holiday spirit has come to Bangor, according to The Elves, a secret group that is quietly sprinkling good deeds throughout the city, helping those in need during this holiday season.
Their gestures may be small — passing out rolls of quarters at the laundromat or leaving a $100 tip for a struggling waitress — but the enormity of their message is generating smiles.
And just like you’d imagine elves to be, they’re there one minute and gone the next and wish to remain anonymous.
“For me personally, this is my Christmas,” said the group’s organizer, or if you prefer, Head Elf, in a recent phone interview. “I’ve asked everyone who would have normally given me a present to donate to this … Christmas now is what it’s supposed to be — giving and helping.”
The Elves will reveal this: they are 17 friends from the Bangor area, women and children who have devoted their holiday season to giving to strangers in small ways. Sunday, Dec. 10, marked their big “Day of Good Deeds.” They crammed in a van and drove around Bangor donating to homeless shelters and handing out gift cards to patrons at stores such as Goodwill who looked like they could use some extra Christmas spirit.
“Christmas has changed completely for all of us,” the Head Elf said Monday. “Yesterday, it was laughing and tears all at the same time.”
The only physical evidence of their presence is a small holiday tree on the sidewalk of State Street in downtown Bangor. And instead of being adorned with the typical ornaments and lights, this “Giving Tree” is covered with $1 bills. And if you look closely, some bills are rolled carefully while others are folded accordion-style or simply folded into a square — evidence of the many hands that have “decorated” the artificial tree.
At the base of the plastic evergreen is a poem: “If you have a need that’s great, please do not hesitate. We only ask that you take one, so the fun can last for everyone. However, if you are one of the lucky ones, your donation of $1 will be a welcome one. Just attach your dollar to this tree to support your neighbors who are in need.”
After Christmas, the tree will likely be taken down and The Elves will put any remaining money toward yet another good deed.
“We just thought doing something like the Giving Tree would be a great opportunity to put something out there that others could be involved in,” said a second elf, who took money out of her own pocket, along with her fellow elves, to start the tree off.
The Elves were born in fall 2010 after a serious chat over dinner at Miguel’s Mexican Restaurant in Bangor.
“We all went out to eat one night and were just saddened by things we saw along the way,” said the Head Elf. “[We saw] someone was using some leaves for a blanket, and we decided we’d do what little we could do to make that better.”
That holiday season, they got to work helping people in the community, but since they didn’t erect a tree, they were known only by the people whose lives they touched.
This year, the group has doubled in size, donations and good deeds.
“This is how giving should be,” said Lindsay Harmon after discovering the Giving Tree while Christmas shopping in downtown Bangor on Tuesday morning. “You don’t do it for attention, you do it because it’s the right thing to do … There are a lot of silent givers out there that do a lot of good that people don’t know about.”
The Giving Tree made its first appearance on Sunday morning during the Day of Good Deeds.
“We went back yesterday expecting the money to be gone,” said the second elf. “But people had added a lot more to it. That was really humbling and pretty tearful for many of us.”
The Metropolitan Soul, an eclectic downtown gift shop, supports the cause by bringing in the tree at night and setting it out each morning. Storeowner Tracy Darcy, along with the store employees, are sworn to elfdom secrecy.
“It fits Christmas, but man, I hope it encourages people to do random acts of kindness all the time,” said Metropolitan Soul employee Cara Oleksyk of Bangor, who pointed out that although the Giving Tree is brought indoors at night, The Elves have wrapped ribbon around the tree planted in front of the store and people can continue to donate and take dollars from that second tree during the night.
The Giving Tree was out on the street again Monday afternoon when Abigail Tormey of Old Town stumbled upon it on her way to Giacomo’s cafe to study. Though cramming for final exams, the tree moved her to write a letter to the editor of the Bangor Daily News that evening.
“When faced with a tree full of cash,” she wrote, “I realize how very little, compared to others, I need that money. Suddenly the fear of not making rent feels that much smaller, the fear of my electricity being shut off feels that much smaller, the feeling that the gifts I bought for my loved ones were not as generous as they could have been feels that much smaller, and I am face to face with the reality of how blessed I have been. With a smile, I reached into my own pocket and attached a dollar bill to the tree.”
“We know that the people of Bangor care about their community and their neighbors,” said the second elf. “And we hope that by doing something like this, it will kind of slow people down from their normal holiday pace and stop for a moment and just take a moment to reflect and realize that there are other things that are more important than getting that gift and getting somewhere on time.”
Though hurrying to an appointment on Tuesday morning, Pastor Carl Bergman of Bangor’s New Hope Church stopped to clip a dollar onto a plastic needled branch. He was walking with Jenna Perkins of Belfast, a member of his congregation, and they both agreed that they’d rather not know The Elves’ identities.
“Something small is something big to somebody else,” said Perkins, adding her own dollar to the tree. “That’s actually biblical, too. When you give, you’re not supposed to let your right hand know what your left hand is doing.”
The people of Maine are well aware that money doesn’t grow on trees, but they seem to be embracing this arresting display of holiday spirit. Since Sunday, many hands have reached into the branches to give what they can and take what they need. And whether people are giving or taking, The Elves hope that they will experience that warm feeling that inspires them to sprinkle their own good deeds, in whatever form, this holiday season.
“Just try it,” said the head elf. “Christmas will never be the same.”