BRATTLEBORO -- Out there, the sounds of the season include sleigh bells, caroling and friends wishing each other "Happy holidays."
But in the Reformer newsroom, the sound of Pat Smith stamping the backs of Reformer Christmas Stocking checks is a sure sign that the holidays are upon us.
The steady ca-chink, ca-chink, ca-chink starts around Thanksgiving when Smith opens the first Christmas Stocking envelope and the sweet sounds carry right through the season, like an endless Messiah sing that reverberates through the newsroom until the goal is reached.
Each donation comes with a personal remembrance, and Smith, the news clerk at the Reformer, types each one of those into the computer, with the contribution acknowledgments appearing daily in the newspaper and online.
This year, when the Brattleboro Selectboard proclaimed December to be Brattleboro Reformer Christmas Stocking month, it was Smith who picked up the proclamation.
Smith's history with the Reformer Christmas Stocking goes all the way back to when she was a little girl growing up in Brattleboro, when she received winter clothing through the annual gift giving campaign.
She started working at the Reformer in 1969, and first became involved with the Christmas Stocking as a Reformer employee in the early 1990s.
For more than 20 years now she has taken on more and more responsibility and now she opens each envelope, types in the contribution message, stamps the check and makes the daily deposit into the bank.
Through all those years Smith has forged deep relationships with the individuals and families who give every year.
And especially this year, it is a responsibility that has been woven into her holidays, and her life.
Smith's husband, Kermit, died this year, and in his obituary she asked that contributions be made in his name to the Reformer Christmas Stocking.
She broke down in tears when she opened that first envelope with his name on it.
"There are lots of memories in the donations," she said. "It's important to a lot of people."
"Every organization has a heart that keeps the group beating," said longtime Christmas Stocking volunteer Betty Elwell. "We all do our things, but for us, Pat is that heartbeat."
Every year the Brattleboro Reformer leads the annual drive that helps raise money to purchase winter clothing for children in the region.
It takes dozens of volunteers to raise the money, deposit it, purchase and store the clothing, go through applications and then hand out the coats, hats, boots and gloves to the more than 1,300 children in 612 families.
Elwell says Smith has her hands, and a piece of her heart, in every part of the process.
"She works so well with people. She is trustworthy and organized and when she says she will do something, she does it," Elwell said. "She never forgets the meaning of what she is doing. At this point the work she does is built into the fabric of her soul."
After opening so many envelopes through the years, Smith says she has built relationships with the donors.
There is the Ernie Johnson family, which gives every year from their home in Florida.
Johnson, the Brattleboro native who became a major league pitcher and then a legendary broadcaster for the Atlanta Braves, died last year and now the donation is mailed in his memory.
There is the annual gift from "A-nonny-mouse," and the bags of rolled pennies that are walked in to the office every year from area school children who collect the change all year.
"You recognize them, each year," said Smith. "It makes you realize how important this is to them, and how they remember to do this every year."
Every check, and every penny, goes through Smith's hands.
She comes in on Saturdays to collect the mail form the post office, and then bring the deposits to the bank.
"Every donation is important to Pat," said Missy Gallanes, who purchases the winter clothing for the Christmas Stocking and has been involved with the group for about 30 years. "She'll call you when a big one comes in and when school children bring in their change."
She said Smith is quiet and steady presence, someone who has the answer to almost any question and who will make sure that every job is covered, even if she does it on her own.
"All of us do our part, and are involved, but Pat is the one we look to," said Gallanes. "She is our guiding force."
Smith keeps meticulous records, and in a tidy loose leaf binder in her desk, she has numbers going back 20 years on the number of envelopes opened, the amount of money collected, and most important to her, the number of children who were served annually.
She sweats it the whole time, worrying when the donations fall below the previous year's to-date figures, and then again as Christmas approaches and the total is still below the goal.
Yet at the same time, she says, the pennies come in, the checks arrive and one more Brattleboro Reformer Christmas Stocking gets put in the books, until another year's worth of winter clothing is given out the following season.
And Smith starts it all over, one more time.
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or firstname.lastname@example.org.