Some Christians worry -- with good reason -- that corporate greed and secularism are diluting what they call "the reason for the season." But the commercial and spiritual sides of the holiday season both have been on recent display at stores across the country.
No one seems to know where and how it began, but layaway bills are being paid down or off by "Secret Santas" in Ohio and elsewhere. Most often, these generous gestures have occurred at Kmart stores, perhaps because the discounter is one of the few retailers that allow customers to put items on layaway and pay them off a few dollars at a time. But other retailers, such as Walmart, say they've experienced the phenomenon as well.
Nationally, hundreds of people, most of them anonymous, have paid most or all of strangers' layaway balances. The accounts usually are those of struggling families with small children. Often, the accounts are behind in payment, so the donors literally have saved Christmas for many families.
In a Monroe Kmart store, a woman paid $50 of a stranger's layaway balance. She explained that she had been a single mother and understood what a struggle it was.
A woman in Indianapolis paid layaway bills for as many as 50 people, handed out cash to other people, and paid for two carts of toys for a woman in the checkout line. She did it, she said, because her husband recently had died, and she wasn't going to spend the money herself.
A purist might argue that the commercialization of the season is the reason parents are tempted to spend money they don't have on gifts they can't afford. But for young children, the wonder of this time of year isn't so easy to separate into religious and nonreligious compartments. And these simple acts of kindness can strengthen the faith of parents who have grown weary of saying no even to simple things.
Experts say holiday spending is up this year, despite stubbornly high unemployment and a weak economy. That has retailers seeing visions of sugar plums and devout people fretting that religion will get lost in the wrapping paper.
But Secret Santas are proving that the bottom lines of business and altruism sometimes cross.