The bench in front of the Canyon Inn at McCormick’s Creek State Park bears a simple message.
Under the names of Greenwood residents Howard and Cindy Ely, the inscribed placard reads, “Your legacy: As sure as it started here, may it endure forever more.”
Anyone who walks by that bench will read those words and might recognize the names. But only members of Ely family will understand that behind that phrase is nearly 20 years of holiday memories forged on the grounds of the park.
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What started as a one-off chance to do something different has become a Christmas institution for the Elys and their family.
They have returned to McCormick’s Creek every year since 1998 to celebrate together. Three generations of the family now make the trip to Spencer to take winter hikes, sled down the park’s steep hills, do crafts, play trivia games and enjoy each other’s company.
Now the tradition has been shared with the entire world. Cindy Ely’s essay about their “Christmas at the Creek” was included in the holiday edition of the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” collection, released in October.
“It’s not just getting together for Christmas. It’s a mini-vacation,” Cindy said. “We’re a big crew when we go down there.”
The tradition started out of necessity. Cindy and Howard Ely found that, with their four children grown and having families of their own, their home was too small to host Christmas every year.
“It was a two-story house, but the rooms were dinky. In the summertime, that wasn’t a problem, since we could go out in the backyard,” Ely said. “But when our wintertime stuff came, as the family grew, it was too complicated.”
That meant that the clan had to find another location. Howard Ely took the initiative, booking a block of rooms for two nights for themselves and each of their kids’ families.
McCormick’s Creek State Park was significant to the Elys going back for decades. When the children were younger, Howard and Cindy Ely would travel the 50-minute drive so they could hike trails, picnic in the woods and splash around near the waterfalls.
So the news that it would be their new home for the holidays was met with enthusiasm.
“They were so excited. Even the older grandchildren, they could hardly wait until we got there,” Cindy Ely said.
That first year included impromptu sledding down the lodge’s snowy hill on garbage bags, hiking through the wintry woods to the park’s stables and making a trek to the waterfalls.
When they discovered an amphitheater near the lodge, the family put together a talent show with songs, skits and dancing.
“All the young ones perform on stage. They make up plays, and we set out on the benches and cheer them on,” Cindy Ely said.
Howard Ely is the brains behind the family activities. A former science teacher and now assistant girls basketball coach at Perry Meridian High School, he created a schedule that kept everyone busy and happy while building in free time so people could relax.
He leads his grandsons on what has become known as the “Man Walk,” a science-focused hike through the woods to discover trees, animals and rock formations.
At the same time, Cindy Ely and her daughters create a scavenger hunt for the granddaughters and help them make crafts and small gifts.
Those items are hidden around the lodge, and every child is given a map to find their treasures.
“It’s been extremely successful for us having stuff for everybody to do. No one gets bored. Every year, the grandkids, no matter how old they get, they’re excited about the next year,” Cindy Ely said.
The trip climaxes with a men vs. women trivia night — a two-hour marathon brain session for bragging rights for the smartest group in the family.
“My husband is the master of ceremonies. The two teams all wear costumes. They have entrance music. They make posters and banners. It’s amazing,” Cindy Ely said. “We’re a very competitive family.”
The Elys return every year. Because they have become regular holiday guests at the lodge, the park staff know them and look forward to their arrival. Staff members make large meeting rooms available for their crafts, help set the family up in suites next to each other on the top floor and greet them by name as they wander through the halls.
“McCormick’s Creek has been like a home-away-from-home for them. It’s fun on our end to watch them come every year,” said Randy Rhine, general manager at the Canyon Inn. “They visit us often and have a tradition here that it’s fun to be a part of that.”
The significance of the family tradition was what inspired Cindy Ely to submit her story to the “Merry Christmas!” edition of Chicken Soup for the Soul, the collection of inspirational books that has sold more than 100 million copies.
This isn’t the first time Cindy Ely has been featured in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. An essay that she wrote about her decision to go back to St. Mary-of-the-Woods College to earn a degree in journalism was included in “Time to Thrive: 101 Inspiring Stories about Growth, Wisdom and Dreams.”
A former Title I tutor at Clinton Young Elementary School, she has always found writing to be an outlet. Cindy Ely is in the process of writing a children’s book.
She has created a tale of what children go through at a young age — such as making friends, having to move away and starting at a new school — told through a cast of animal characters.
“After that first story was published, I put together this story on the Creek and took my chances. It was pretty exciting to be selected again,” she said.
Plans are in place for the family to return on Dec. 26 and again the excitement among the Elys is building.
Part of what makes the trip so cherished is that those involved in the planning understand each year could be the last for the tradition. With so many different families and people taking part, it’s inevitable that conflicts are going to arise.
“We’re going to keep it going on as long as we can,” Cindy Ely said.