A few years back I met a man who spent every December traveling across the country finding hardworking people who were having a tough time around the holidays and putting an extra hundred bucks in their stockings. His gift couldn’t fix all their problems. But it did make their day, and it gave them that all important boost which reinvigorated their faith in others, their faith in God, and their faith in themselves enough to keep going when times were tough.
The only thing more amazing than the fact that Larry Stewart did this every Christmas anonymously, disguised as Saint Nick, was the reason he did it. That’s because when he was down on his luck and at the end of his rope somebody gave him a hand up thirty five years earlier. And it changed his life. And there’s a pretty great lesson in how that all unfolded for all of us.
It all started back when Larry was a young salesman driving the highways and byways of America. The hardworking young man was doing everything right putting in eleven hour days and racking up great sales numbers for his company. But the rest of the company wasn’t doing so well, and when the owner decided to fold up shop in the middle of the night, he didn’t take the time to tell Larry. And he didn’t take the time to pay him his wages and his expenses for over a month either.
So there was Larry unemployed and broke in a faraway town, with an empty gas tank, and an empty stomach. Desperate, he wandered into a restaurant determined to eat, even if he couldn’t pay for it.
After polishing off his meal, he proceeded with to tell the waiter that he must have lost his wallet. Half expecting to be arrested, and half expecting to be punched out, instead the owner of the restaurant stepped out from behind the counter with a crisp $20 bill, and handed it to him, claiming he saw it slip out of the young salesman’s back pocket.
Stunned and confused, he quickly snagged the bill and darted out of the restaurant, and made his way to the gas station to fill up his car and make his way home. All the way he thought about the lucky break, eventually coming to the unavoidable realization that the owner obviously only pretended to see the money slip from his pocket so he could do a good deed without hurting Larry’s pride.
The good deed inspired him and spurred him on to rediscover his success, eventually becoming a very wealthy entrepreneur.
But he never forgot that good deed. And a few years later began his Secret Santa routine, going from town to town finding folks who looked like they were a little out of sorts and giving them a little pick me up in the form of a hundred dollar bill. From waitresses and front desk clerks to school teachers and garbage men, from people driving along in their broken down jalopies, to those who were noticeably wearing a tattered jacket or an old pair of shoes, he offered them a little something to ease the pain at a time of the year when it had a special impact.
In 2007, Larry was diagnosed with cancer. A miraculous cure would be the perfect ending for the story, but it was not to be, nor was it what he wished for. What he really wanted was for legions of Secret Santas the world over to be his legacy. And in fact, after his death dozens of imitators did pop up across the country.
But what does this all mean for you and me?
Well, maybe it means that Christmas isn’t just about giving gifts to our family and friends, but the real spirit of a Catholic Christmas is taking the time to give a complete stranger a boost.
Maybe it’s unexpectedly paying the bill for the table next to you in a restaurant when you notice the family looks like a little down on their luck. How about asking your busboy how he’s doing this Christmas and giving him an extra tip. Or walking down the street to help the elderly neighbor you haven’t spoken to in years.
Maybe it’s not so much about paying it forward, like we hear so much, but appreciating all the wonderful things that others have done for you in the past and doing some of those for others.
Then maybe Larry’s wish will really come true in a bigger way than he could have ever imagined.