I live on a busy intersection in Baltimore County, Maryland, at the northeast corner of a four-way stop that sees commuters from the next county stream past on their journey toward Baltimore every morning and bumper-to-bumper back toward their homes every evening (although during the day it's quiet and peaceful here). For almost all of the 17 years I’ve owned this house, I’ve dressed the corner of my two-acre lot, which faces all this vehicular traffic, in seasonal décor to mark autumn, Halloween and Christmas. In early fall I arrange straw bales on the grass and plant a seven-foot scarecrow behind them. I set out a variety of pumpkins and gourds and squashes, along with a collection of feather-covered Styrofoam crows and roosters. No one in all these years has even so much as smashed a pumpkin.
A few days before Halloween, I add lighted skulls to my autumnal display, giving the arrangement a more macabre tone. I hang a “floating” ghoul on my front porch, whose solar-powered lantern flickers at night, set a smoldering cauldron of shrunken apple heads on a table by the front door and, of course, carve a jaunty jack-o-lantern or two. After Halloween I put the scary decorations away and leave the fall display up at my corner for all to enjoy through Thanksgiving weekend.
In early December, I stash the squash in my cellar for winter stews, and set out a pair of animated, lighted deer. It’s a buck and a doe that I’ve had for years, almost life size, sturdy and of very good quality, with motorized heads that turn left to right (the buck, as if to gaze at the commuters) and up and down (the doe, as if nibbling at a straw bale). Over the years I’ve received several cards from people so moved by my simple displays that they felt compelled to leave notes in my mailbox to tell me how the arrays lift their spirits. One day a family even stopped to ask if they could pose their children between the deer for their annual Christmas card photograph. I was delighted and offered to take the picture for them.
So I was understandably horrified to look out my bedroom window last weekend to find that the lighted buck was missing from my Christmas display. He had been there that morning. I ran some errands in the middle of the day and hadn't noticed he was gone until my automatic timer turned on the lights in late afternoon,and I could see only one deer at the corner. The thieves had stopped their car alongside the road and grabbed my buck in the middle of the day on a Saturday afternoon! They hadn't realized that he was plugged in, apparently, since I found his extension cord at the edge of the road. They had tried to steal the doe, too, but her metal anchors apparently held more tightly to the ground than the buck's. The scoundrels managed only to break her motorized neck and tangle her lights as they drove off with my stag.
I was distraught. Who would do such a thing during this, the merriest of seasons? Who would stoop so low as to rob my daily drivers-by of their bucolic winter scene? The officer who took a police report the next day said he believed the evil deed was carried out by drug addicts who wrongly assumed the deer was made of copper, which could be sold on the black market for quite a bit of money. He theorized that as soon as the thieves realized the deer was made of cheap metal, they would just throw him in the woods someplace.
So I put up a sign. A very large sign. I propped it up next to the doe with her broken neck and mangled lights. It said: "To whoever stole my buck, please return him." My morale was shattered. I was heartbroken that someone would spirit away a possession whose sole purpose on my corner was to bring joy to others. I was "done" with Christmas. I didn't care if I put up another single decoration. I couldn't imagine feeling any sort of Christmas joy.
Within minutes a woman pulled into my driveway. "How much is the deer?" she asked. "Oh, no", I explained. "I'm not selling the doe. I just want the stolen one returned. "No", she persisted. "How much was the deer that was stolen?" This kind stranger was offering to pay to replace my missing buck! She explained that she drives past my house every day and her children have derived much enjoyment from my seasonal decorations over the years. I was so moved by her kind gesture. I explained that I had searched the internet high and low but a replacement buck of the size and quality of the one I lost no longer seemed to be available. I asked her simply to be on the lookout for my stolen deer, perhaps tossed into the woods nearby or dumped by the side of the road. She promised to be vigilant, and tell her neighbors, too.
The next evening, there was a knock at my door. A young woman in her 20s stood on my front porch. She said her name was Kat. She explained that she and her dad live right up the road from me. They had seen my sign and wanted to do something nice to restore my Christmas spirit. Her father, a rather handy man with an axe, it seemed, had chiseled a deer for me by hand from logs he had lying around. At that moment the man emerged from his pickup truck with an adorable buck, smaller in stature than my stolen one, but much greater in charm. Kat had fashioned antlers from branches fastened with tiny green and gold bows all around, and had hung from one branch a red glass ornament that said "Merry Christmas from the Mansfields". I invited them in and we chatted for a few minutes. "My adorable new deer is going to need a name!", I exclaimed. I asked the dad what his name was, and he said his name was Dave but all his friends call him "Spike". Spike!! It was a perfect name for my new reindeer. I gave Spike a place of prominence on my front porch and posted his picture on Facebook for all my friends to see. What a lovely thing for these neighbors to do for me, a complete stranger to them. My faith in humanity was quickly being restored.
Two more days passed. I would be taking down the sign the following weekend, as I felt the chances of ever getting my stag back were quickly fading. Then, just after dark on Wednesday, my doorbell rang. This time there was a man at my door with two giant boxes at his feet. "I drive by your house every day" he said, "and my employees wanted to do something nice to cheer you up after your loss." They had pooled their money and sent the man, Chris Cook, owner with his wife, Stephanie, of a small wiring company in the next town, to Home Depot to purchase a replacement deer for me. In addition to the deer, he had purchased a trio of lighted gift boxes to add to my display. I was stunned. The new deer was gorgeous, animated just like my buck had been, and every bit as big. What a thoughtful, gracious thing to do for a complete stranger! He helped me carry the boxes inside and I asked him to express my profound gratitude to his employees. Now my display would be even better than it was before! I would have lighted gift boxes to set beside the deer, a tribute to my joy at receiving such lovely and unexpected gifts from strangers.
No sooner had the man departed than I noticed a smaller box perched on my front porch railing. Had Mr. Cook left a third package behind? I picked it up and brought it inside. It was a smaller, lighted deer. Taped to the box was a handwritten note. The donor wanted to create a teachable moment for her children, so she took them to the store to pick out a replacement deer for me. Her note expressed concern that the little white deer did not at all match the large brown doe on my lawn. But I was ecstatic. The little deer would be a perfect "fawn" for my new deer "family". Now I had a whole herd of deer! My spirit was full, my faith in humanity completely restored.
This weekend I set my newly assembled deer family out at the corner of my property. I wrapped a new set of lights around the doe and reassembled her broken neck. I set up the brightly colored gift boxes next to the straw bales. I made a new sign. It said "Thank you, everyone!" For these are no longer the gifts of a few isolated strangers. They are gestures of kindness from an entire community. They represent, for me at least, a village that is watching over me, even as I go about my business completely unaware. These are now "community deer". My seasonal display is no longer just the machination of a single woman trying to brighten the spirits of daily commuters as they pass by my yard on their way to work. It is a demonstration of what happens when human beings care about the feelings of other human beings. I am truly heartened by the good will I've experienced over the past few days. I am deeply moved by the generosity of total strangers. It's going to be a good Christmas.