Season of Giving: More Secret Santas Pay Off Strangers’ Layaway Accounts

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Shoppers aren’t being bashful about throwing money around this holiday season: Americans spent $52 billion at stores over Black Friday weekend alone. While the holidays are long known for charity, one of the newest traditions pushing a rise in spending is anything but unselfish: Buying oneself a gift is all the rage. Even so, generosity is still alive: A spreading mini-movement, in which anonymous Secret Santas are paying off the layaway accounts of total strangers, shows that people are capable of thinking about more than just themselves this time of year.

Last week, news broke that a few Kmart shoppers had been paying off layaway accounts of people they didn’t know. The trend apparently began when one woman paid around $500 toward three layaway accounts at a Kmart in Michigan; the woman specifically looked for accounts with toys placed on layaway in order to help out families with little ones at home.

Copycat Secret Santas followed the woman’s lead, and now, as the Associated Press reported, the movement has taken on a life of its own, with hundreds of layaway accounts paid off by random strangers around the country. Most of the accounts are at Kmarts, though do-gooders are spreading the wealth by paying off strangers’ Walmart layway items as well.

On Tuesday in Indianapolis, an anonymous woman in her mid-40s chipped in for layaway goods of as many as 50 people, then on her way out handed over two $50 bills to a woman standing in line waiting to pay for a couple of carts full of toys. Another Secret Santa in northern California gave $10,000 to pay off toys and children’s clothing that had been put on layaway.

(MORE: Now We’re Supposed to Have Two Christmas Trees?)

Inspired by the original Secret Santa, a Consumerist reader known just as “Gail” wrote in telling how she joined in with the spirit of giving. At a nearby Kmart, she located the layaway area and asked for an account that contained toys and had less than $100 owed. The manager found a suitable account, and Gail paid off all but 1¢. (Apparently, paying off an entire account can lead to confusion, and possibly close the account.)

Gail writes:

So the customers wouldn’t think that a mistake had been made, [the store manager] assured us that she would call the customers right away and tell them that they only owed a penny before they could pick up their layaway items. I can’t remember the last time spending $100 made me feel so good!

No wonder Santa Claus is always in such a good mood.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.