How One Man Celebrates Xmas

Last weekend USA Today ran a wonderful story about a philanthropist known to many as "Secret Santa." For nearly a quarter century, this man has celebrated Christmas by roaming the streets of cities and suburbs and eyeing anyone who might appear to be in need. Donned in a red flannel shirt, he enthusiastically hands people one-hundred-dollar bills. Last year he doled out $25,000 to various New Yorkers still traumatized by 9/11. Secret Santa gives discreetly: only his family and closest friends know his identity. This man was reared by grandparents and never knew what Christmas with presents was like. He had always been indigent.

He began work as a salesman, but his company eventually collapsed. He had no money, slept out of his car, and one morning was so desperate for food that he went to a diner and claimed afterwards that he had lost his wallet. At that point the diner had emptied. The diner's owner saw that Santa was hungry and poor, so he dropped a $20 bill next to his table and told Santa that it must have fallen from his pocket. Santa later figured out that the man was being charitable, and from that day forward he vowed always to help the helpless if ever he came into a lot of money. (It turns out that Santa hit the jackpot in the business world.)

Nearly 30 years after the incident, Santa tracked the diner's owner down and asked him what he thought that same $20 would be worth today. The owner laughed and guessed the amount to be $10,000. Santa looked him in the eye, mumbled a few words, and handed him a check for $10,000. The man refused the sum, but Santa insisted he take it. The extra money might actually come in handy for the man: his wife has since been diagnosed with Alzheimer's and cancer.

It's interesting how one good deed can spawn another. The owner of a diner helps out a needy young man, and years later this same man gives hundreds of thousands of dollars to passersby in the street. It is likely that one of Santa's beneficiaries will remember his altruism and be enormously kind to some child or parent years down the road.

(Update 1/13/07: Secret Santa dies of cancer at age 58.)