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Little gifts from strangers are long on memories; Shivering boy, man with a cigar share Christmas spirit

Christmas often is found in small things that carry deep meanings for us. Here, two people share their stories:

It was well below zero, with gusts of freezing wind, on Christmas Eve back in 1992 when Ellen Bernardson of Minnesota, a single mom, took her boys, ages 7 and 11, for a bite to eat after a day spent wrapping gifts.

They ordered roast-beef sandwiches and potato wedges, and as they waited, she noticed a boy about 13 in a light jacket, holding a half-filled pillowcase. "He was shivering," she recalled. She asked if someone was picking him up, and he said, no, that he'd accidentally gotten off the bus too soon, and was warming up before he walked the rest of the way.

"I told him it was too far for him, dressed as he was, to walk -- that he'd freeze," she said.

So she offered him a ride. He hesitated, then said OK. Their food arrived. The boy looked hungry, so Bernardson offered to buy him a meal. He said no, but with coaxing, ate some potatoes.

As they talked, the boy told them he'd been sent away from home because he'd been causing trouble. Bernardson started having second thoughts about offering him a ride.

But when they walked to her car, the bitter wind convinced her she was doing the right thing. As she drove, they asked the boy what kind of trouble he'd been in. He'd stolen a car, among other things, he said. Bernardsons' sons in the back seat exchanged wary glances. Then, as they came to a stop, the boy reached into the pillowcase. The family froze in fear.

"We're going to die," John Watercott, Bernardson's youngest, remembers thinking.

Instead, the boy pulled out a small wrapped gift and handed it to Bernardson. She told him it wasn't necessary, but he said, "Lady, don't worry, it's not much."

Bernardson wanted to walk him to his door, but the boy said no, and insisted on being dropped off at a church.

Back at home, they unwrapped the gift to find a small, inexpensive Christmas ornament: a bell in the shape of a penguin, with red pompom earmuffs. She hung it on their tree -- something she's done ever since.

The encounter reminds her of the original Christmas story. "They were cold; they had no place to stay." She wonders about the boy she helped and why their paths crossed. "It was so odd, and it was out of character for me [to pick up a stranger]," she said. "Every year, when I place the ornament on my tree, my thoughts go to that cold little boy, and I hope and pray he is happy and safe."

Jerry Bullard was a third-grader with a fistful of coins when he set out to buy a Christmas gift for his mother. It was 1959, and he'd been saving money, going without milk at lunch until he accumulated 75 cents.

The snow crunched under his feet as he walked to a florist shop, the nicest one in Brooklyn.

There he spotted a shiny Santa figurine, his bag a planter filled with artificial holly. It seemed perfect -- until the florist told him it cost several dollars. Bullard was crestfallen. Then, an older man in an overcoat, chomping on a cigar, told the florist, "Give it to him. I'd only spend the money in a bar."

Bullard thanked the man and rushed home. Christmas was two weeks away, but he couldn't wait to present it to his mother, who knew it was worth more than he could have afforded. After he told his improbable tale, she went to the florist herself.

"When she returned, she was beaming like a pumpkin," Bullard recalled. "She said, 'I believe you now.' "

From then on, the figurine was special to both of them.

He never saw the cigar-chomping man again. "But I never forgot him, and I never will," he said. "He was a Damon Runyon-esque character, and it was like an O. Henry story. Ever since, "I try to help kids if they're short a buck at McDonald's or the toy counter," Bullard said. "That's a tradition the guy passed on to me."