In the poorest city in America—Reading, Pennsylvania—a tall man in a red shirt and cap (with “Elf” stitched on the back) hands out $100 bills. His back is always to the camera, his face never shows, because this Santa wants to remain anonymous.
Ron Devlin from the Reading Eagle filmed him on his visits to thrift stores, bus depots and laundromats. What is striking is not just that the man gives away $20,000 of his own money, mostly $100 bills stamped with “Secret Santa” in red. He could have passed them out like a benevolent but patronizing donor. Instead, he speaks softly and then he listens. That’s when he receives the gift of stories from surprised recipients.
One of those comes from a young man who sobs after Santa moves on to the next person. Through tears, he says, “This man said to me, ‘You’re a good man,’ and it felt good to hear that.”
Secret Santa is a successful businessman who made a promise to the original Secret Santa, Larry Stewart. When Stewart was homeless in Mississippi, he walked into a diner. He ordered a meal and then pretended he had lost his wallet. Instead of throwing him out or calling the police, Ted Horn, who owned the diner, bent down and picked up a $20 bill. “Son, you must have dropped this,” he said. That gift, and the gentle way Horn allowed him to save face, made Stewart determined to help others as soon as he had the chance.
Stewart became successful in cable television and then with his own long-distance telephone company. He never forgot Ted Horn’s gift. Year after year, Stewart passed out money as an anonymous Secret Santa. He even tracked down Ted Horn and gave him an envelope with $10,000 in it. By the time he died, Stewart had given away $1.3 million.
The Secret Santa in Reading, Pennsylvania promised to carry on the tradition. He is part of a society of Secret Santas, all of them agreeing to seven values that include anonymity, humility, humor and compassion.
There are some heart-wrenching moments in the video, but mostly there is joy. Maybe there is a Secret Santa in your town. Or maybe you want to become one, giving money or a helping hand, without thought of reward. There’s a welcome for you in an anonymous society of quiet heroes.
by Cathryn Wellner