It was a cold afternoon out Christmas scramble shopping before the holidays. I was home from grad school just a few days before the big day, and didn't have my shopping done. Mom and I spent the day out spending my money I didn't have on gifts for everyone - so no one in the family could say "Jennifer didn't bother to think of me this holiday - she was too selfish, I suppose", or some other ill-intentioned remark... especially for the poor grad student who was earning below the national poverty level...
We were checking out in line at Wal-Mart. All our spoils were settled on the rolling rubber mat that auto-scrolls up to the checkout. Two women filed in line behind us, setting down all kinds of toys & little clothes. One was older, one was younger. I heard the younger one say, "Mom, we can't afford all these gifts this year. We've already explained it to the kids, and they said they understand. Santa has to take a year easy to catch up."
The older woman said, "No bother. We're doing this anyways. I don't know how, but we'll figure something out. Those kids shouldn't have to understand what hard years are. We will figure it out, sweetheart, don't worry."
I was heartbroken. Here I was, using what little tuition stipend I'd saved, and I was buying half-decent things for family that didn't need a darn thing, while this mom was trying to buy gifts for little kids with a harsh reality to face.
I leaned into my mom, and said, "Mom, did you hear that? I know I shouldn't eavesdrop... but it's sad." I explained what I'd heard.
As the clerk scanned our things, she gave me the total, and I paid up in full. All cash. Mom looked at the clerk, looked back at the two women, and dug through her purse. She pulled out some amount of cash, I didn't see how much. There were at least three twenty-dollar bills in the pile. She folded it up neatly, and, as we walked off.. said to the clerk, "Here. Put this towards the next people's bill. Don't tell them where it came from, and have a Merry Christmas."
We left the store. I was nearly in tears. "Mom, that was so sweet. I can't believe you did that."
Mom said, "I do that every year. Each Christmas, I end up in line in front of somebody like that. I hear what they say, like you did, and I reserve Christmas money every year for that situation. Take note, and do it yourself. You will be blessed Christmas morning thinking of the kids tearing open gifts that were really from Santa."
And I have. Each year, I look at how much I have to spend for the holiday. I make a list, include all of the family and close friends. I handmake some gifts, I personalize others. I set aside a little cash, and stick it in a safe spot in my purse. Each person gets something that is useful, or necessary. I don't buy "hang it on the wall without a use" gifts often. I eavesdrop, I listen in, and I stare at what's on the checkout lines around me... And for the last five holidays, I've had one of those families behind me in a checkout line, and every year, I've been Santa.