Anonymous donors in the United States are paying off the layaway accounts of strangers, buying the toys and games set aside by impoverished parents for their children.
The phenomenon began at Kmart stores across the country, but Wal-Mart and other retailers who offer the plan say they have seen it happen as well.
Last week, a young father in dirty clothes and worn-out boots stood in line at the Kmart layaway counter, Edna Deppe, assistant manager at the store in Indianapolis,recalled.
With him were three small children. He asked to pay something on his bill because he knew he wouldn't be able to afford it all before Christmas. Then a mysterious woman stepped up to the counter.
"She told him, 'No, I'm paying for it,'" Deppe said. "He just stood there and looked at her and then looked at me and asked if it was a joke. I told him it wasn't, and that she was going to pay for him. And he just busted out in tears."
Before she left the store Tuesday evening, the Indianapolis woman in her mid-40s had paid the layaway orders for as many as 50 people. On the way out, she handed out $50 bills and paid for two carts of toys for a woman in line at the cash register.
"She was doing it in the memory of her husband who had just died, and she said she wasn't going to be able to spend it and wanted to make people happy with it," Deppe said. The woman did not identify herself and only asked people to "remember Ben," an apparent reference to her husband.
Most of the donors have done their giving secretly.
Dona Bremser, an Omaha nurse, was at work when a Kmart employee called to tell her someone had paid off the $70 balance of her layaway account, which held nearly $200 in toys for her four-year-old son. "I was speechless," Bremser said. "It made me believe in Christmas again."
Dozens of other customers have received similar calls in Nebraska, Michigan, Iowa, Indiana and Montana. The benefactors generally ask to help families who are squirreling away items for young children. They often pay a portion of the balance, usually all but a few dollars or cents so the layaway order stays in the store's system.
"It is honestly being driven by people wanting to do a good deed at this time of the year," said Salima Yala, Kmart's division vice president for layaway, who said the company had done nothing to encourage it.
The good Samaritans seem to be visiting mainly Kmart stores, though a Wal-Mart spokesman said a few of their stores in Joplin, Mo., and Chicago have also seen some layaway accounts paid off.
The sad memories of layaways lost prompted at least one good Samaritan to pay off the accounts of five people at an Omaha Kmart, said Karl Graff, the store's assistant manager.
"She told me that when she was younger, her mom used to set up things on layaway at Kmart, but they rarely were able to pay them off because they just didn't have the money for it," Graff said.
He called a woman who had been helped, "and she broke down in tears on the phone with me. She wasn't sure she was going to be able to pay off their layaway and was afraid their kids weren't going to have anything for Christmas."
"You know, 50 bucks may not sound like a lot, but I tell you what, at the right time, it may as well be a million dollars for some people," Graff said.