Need a little pick-me-up this holiday season?
Look no further than the scores of "layaway Santas" who are flooding the stores this holiday and proving that the Christmas spirit truly does live in the hearts of many Americans.
The way layaway Santas work is simple: do-gooders visit stores that have a layaway department, such as Wal-Mart, Kmart or Toys "R" Us, and offer to pay off the holiday layaway bills of others who are struggling to save enough to put presents under the tree.
Layaway Santas have been around for ages, but the idea gained traction recently when the Associated Press highlighted their good deeds
two years ago.
Wal-Mart said it tracked more than 1,000 instances of lawaway Santas this season. Toy "R" Us reports 794 layaway Santa visits in 2012, while Kmart said big-hearted strangers spent more than $1.5 million in others' layaway contracts over the years, reports NBC News
Most donors remain anonymous, but a few do come forward, including Dave Wilson, 65, who grew up poor on a farm in Iowa, but in Horatio Alger-like fashion went on to own 17 car dealerships in Orange County, Calif.
Every December he gives his wife Holly (yes, really) a special present: a Kmart receipt showing the thousands he spent helping others. Last Christmas he spent $18,000 paying off 320 layaway accounts. He has similar plans this year.
"It's not passing out Christmas hams or turkeys. They have to pay at least 10 percent ... this is something people have thought about and made an investment in," Wilson told NBC about his reasoning behind the yearly tradition.
Folks who cannot come up with the balance of their layaway account in time risk not receiving the gifts they earmarked for the holiday. That's why receiving the news that their accounts were paid off can come as a true Christmas miracle to many.
"Parents really want to make Christmas happen," Rachel Saraga, a manager at the Wal-Mart in King of Prussia, Pa., tells NBC of people who participate in their layaway program.
She sums up their reactions to learning their accounts have been paid off in one word: "Tears."