One cure for a sad Christmas: Making others' merry

Christmas 2009 was shaping up to be a sad one.

My partner’s mom died of ovarian cancer in June of that year; we’d lost her dad to pancreatic cancer three years earlier. For Betsy and her two sisters, it was their first Christmas without their parents and we were spending the holiday at their childhood home in northern Michigan – the place they’d been for every single Christmas of their lives.

On Christmas Eve, we put up the tree but couldn’t bring ourselves to hang more than a half-dozen ornaments. We ate dinner quietly, talking about Christmases past and traditions that would now seem empty and pointless without Hollis and Mary. Nothing would ever be the same again.

As we ate, I thought about a story I’d seen on the news earlier that week: Someone anonymously paid off a stranger’s layaway at a big box store. I wanted to do that, too. After dinner, I pitched the idea to Betsy and her sisters as a way to cheer ourselves up and get us out of the house. “Let’s go make somebody else happy for Christmas!”

On Christmas Eve in West Branch, our best option was Walmart. The store didn’t offer layaway then, so we bought two $25 gift cards and began to scout the store for people to surprise.

We gave the first $25 to a woman pushing cart holding just her granddaughter’s tattered winter coat. She was elated and told us it would enable her to buy a Christmas present for her daughter, who she was otherwise not going to be able to shop for that year.

The other $25 went to a woman who had lost just her husband of 35 years and was going to be spending her first Christmas alone. She was shopping the clearance rack for a new pair of pants.

She cried when we surprised her and told us the money would let her buy a Christmas meal and a few more things she really needed. “You have no idea how much this means to me,” she told us.

We cried with her and a new tradition was born – one we would execute every Christmas Eve in honor of Betsy’s parents.

In the ensuing weeks as we shared our story, we were surprised and moved as friends and family handed us cash and asked us to add it to next year’s outing. Many of them told us they only wanted one thing in return – to hear our stories.

In 2010, our pot grew to $300 and in both 2011 and 2012 – without soliciting for even one dollar – we gave away $750.

This will be our fifth Christmas Eve elf caper. We have been helping people at home here in Lansing since that first West Branch outing.

Here are a few of the most memorable stories over the years:

Store security staffers have been helpful. We check in with them so they don’t get suspicious of us lurking in the aisles for so long, and they often know of store regulars – sometimes staff – who are very much in need. Our first such connection was heartbreaking. Undercover security caught a husband and wife stealing. They weren’t stealing electronics, jewelry or alcohol. They were stealing store-brand food so they could have Christmas dinner. Security told us most people they catch are unremorseful and unwilling to accept a list of agencies offering services that could help them. Not this couple. The husband had been laid off a month earlier, and they were desperate.

They wrote down every name and number, grateful for any help they could get. We met the wife outside the security office and told her we wanted to help her buy groceries. We handed her $200 worth of gift cards as she stared at us in disbelief. “Are you kidding me?” she asked, eyes welling up quickly. She told us she was earning just a little more than $200 a month, and they were trying to give their daughter dinner for Christmas. We were stunned we had nearly matched her month’s income with one gesture.

One year, we went to Kmart in South Lansing to pay off some layaways. After we had taken care of two, a woman sitting on a bench caught Betsy’s attention. She asked if we were from an agency helping people on Christmas Eve. Betsy told her no, this was just our family tradition, fueled by the contributions of family and friends. The woman told Betsy she was there with her niece and noticed what we were doing. “Does your niece need a little help?” Betsy asked. “Oh, yes,” the woman said. “She doesn’t have any money.”

Betsy approached the young woman at the layaway counter and asked if she was making a payment on her bill. She told Betsy no, she had just canceled the layaway because she couldn’t afford to pay the more than $300 left on it. This also meant she lost what money she already had put down. She told Betsy her brother had been murdered earlier in the month, and she was now raising his son along with hers. She just wanted to be able to get a couple of presents for the kids. Betsy handed her what we had left – $100 – and she sobbed. They hugged for a long time.

Betsy’s sister, Amy, joined us in Lansing one Christmas Eve, and we divvied up the stack of gift cards. Amy noticed an older woman in the baking aisle who had a few basic food items in her cart and appeared to be rifling through coupons in her purse. Amy approached her: "I have this gift card for $25. Could you use it?" The woman started crying and said to Amy, "I was just counting my money to see if I had enough." Amy said, "Then you should have this. And have a very merry Christmas."

When Betsy and I heard the woman say she was counting her money, we stepped forward with our two remaining $25 gift cards and offered them to her as well. She kept crying and thanking us and blessing us and wishing us a merry Christmas over and over. As we walked away, we heard her say, "Wow ... wow ... wow."

Store security directed us toward a young woman who worked in the clothing department. We were told her daughter had been very sick and she’d missed a lot of work to care for her. We offered her a gift card, asking if she could use a little holiday boost. “Yes,” she sighed. “Things have been hard at home. I buried both of my parents this week.” We were stunned into silence. Each had died of an unexpected ailment, just three days apart. The tragedies had happened so recently that the employee who pointed us in her direction hadn’t even heard about it yet.

Last year, down to our last card, I picked up a few things we needed to buy and got in a long line, not sure what I’d do with the final card. I was standing behind a young mom who was so tired she was practically lying down over her cart. Her 4-year-old daughter was in the basket, playing quietly; Mom had just a handful of food items in her cart. I tapped her on the shoulder and asked if she could use a gift card. Her eyes brightened and she said, "You know, I really could." The young woman told us her low tire pressure light had come on the day before and she went to tire shop to get it checked out.

They fixed whatever was wrong and gave her car back to her, no charge. She said she didn’t have much money to begin with, but she was so happy that she gave the technician $5. He was surprised and grateful for the tip, she told us. So it seemed as though her good deed was already coming back to her. As the mom wheeled her cart ahead to check out, the little girl peeked around her mom and looked at me. She said, "Mom, what's that lady doing?" "She's being nice," her mom said. "She's being very nice."

We regularly talk about how grateful we are for what we have in our lives. And every year, we are even more grateful after our Christmas Eve mission. It’s both heartwarming and heartbreaking to see what as little as $25 can mean to someone.

We know we’re helping them; we hope they know they’re helping us in return.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Fred Fry
Sun, 12/15/2013 - 7:48am
Wow...just Wow, Robin. Paying it forward. I read last week that a study showed that having and showing gratitude is a leading source of happiness. What a great example you're teaching us.
Robin Miner-Swartz
Sun, 12/15/2013 - 9:09pm
I'm a big believer in gratitude and paying it forward. The impact is truly immeasurable. Thanks so much for your comments, Fred.
sam melvin
Sun, 12/15/2013 - 3:54pm
THIS CHIRSTMAS ...Write , call your STATE Rep. and CONGRESS and Ask "Them TO STOP cutting FOODSTAMPS/SNAP. to give the SENOIR and VETRENS A 100% increase in there Social Security Check + A" LIVING Pension" WE work for over 40 years and keep this country save and prospers(in the money)The gasoline hike in 2001 DID the damage plus the Bank bail-OUT(houseforecloser) made this a BEGGAR COUNTRY...Why the Big groceries factories get subsidis from The FARMBILL, the littel guy get a can of beans,(bad for our healths BPA in cannsSO, please write call your state and congress person ,TO stop this maddness. THe can of bean this not doing the trick Since the turkey was missing.!
Robin Miner-Swartz
Sun, 12/15/2013 - 9:14pm
Sam, thank you for your passion and your work. I wish you peace and health this season and in 2014.
Mon, 12/16/2013 - 9:27am
My parents live in West Branch! Thank you for posting, and for being a shining example of what is right in this world.
Robin Miner-Swartz
Mon, 12/16/2013 - 10:24am
Thank you, Tina! West Branch is a wonderful town. We love that this story starts there :)
Mon, 12/16/2013 - 10:08am
This is indeed a wonderful holiday tradition. Last year, moved by the tragedy of the Sandy Hook shooting, my wife and I decided to do something similar to "pay it forward." We went to a Kroger store in a poor neighborhood in metro Detroit on Christmas Eve and bought ten $50 gift cards. We gave one to the cashier and asked her to give the others to the next nine people in line to help with their Christmas meal purchases. The cashier started to cry as she wished us a Merry Christmas.
Robin Miner-Swartz
Mon, 12/16/2013 - 10:25am
That's a great story, Steve. What a tremendous gift you and your wife gave.
Mon, 12/16/2013 - 1:49pm
This is just what I needed to hear, Robin. Thank you! My "check engine" light came on in my car this morning as I was going over my shopping list in my head. While I may be worried about how to afford any car repairs, at least I have a car and a good job! So many others in our area do not. I can "give a little bit more than you got to give" (Kid Rock lyric, of course!), and this story reminds me of that. Much love to you and Betsy. :)
Robin Miner-Swartz
Mon, 12/16/2013 - 8:53pm
Indeed, Missy. Your perspective is always awesome -- thank you for sharing that. Wishing you and Chloe all the best! <3