Special delivery: Secret Santas bring joy (and cash) to strangers

The crisp $100 bills – each stamped in red ink with “Secret Santa” – met with reactions that ranged from tears of disbelief to whoops of joy.

On Thursday, a group of seven anonymous benefactors spent the day handing $100 bills to strangers around Charlotte.

Their desire to spread holiday cheer is a continuation of the Secret Santa effort started decades ago by Kansas City, Mo., businessman Larry Stewart. In the ’70s, he vowed to help others after a stranger paid for a much-needed meal while Stewart was in need.

Stewart went on to become a millionaire. For nearly 30 years, he gave $100 bills to strangers across the country during the holidays, often dressed as Santa Claus. Stewart’s desire to help others sparked the formation of The Society of Secret Santas, who continue the act of anonymous giving worldwide.

Secret Santa is an annual tradition for two Charlotte-area couples, who were joined this year by several family members. The group wishes to remain unnamed and introduced themselves to strangers as “elves” or “Santa’s helpers.”

Wearing red berets with the word “Elf” embroidered in yellow stitching, their only request is for recipients to do something kind for others.

The group, joined by a half-dozen Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers, crisscrossed the city. The elves rode in a van that one of the officers had decked in reindeer window antlers and a magnetic red nose on the grill.

Terry Butler was changing a flat tire along West Boulevard when the elves and their police escort pulled up alongside. “You scared the Santa Claus out of me,” he said with a laugh, thanking them for the help.

Another of the elves’ stops was the Clyde and Ethel Dickson Domestic Violence Shelter, where staff said nearly all of its residents – 60 percent children, 40 percent women – are living in poverty.

The elves gave coloring books to the children and sang “Happy Birthday” to one girl who was celebrating her first, before slipping a $100 bill to each of at least a dozen women.

The elves’ gifts were met with shocked gasps, teary eyes and wishes of “Merry Christmas.”

Across town at Merry Oaks International Academy Elementary, the elves took turns telling the Secret Santa story in a number of classes they popped into, leaving coloring books with students and gifts of cash with teachers.

Art teacher Nan Bloom and music teacher Ronald Monroe offered effusive thanks after meeting the elves. Bloom said she was just about out of supplies for students, “and I can buy a lot of glitter with this, thank you!”

CMPD Chief Rodney Monroe made several stops with the elves.

“It helps energize you and get you ready for Christmas,” he said. “It’s what Christmas is all about; it just fills your heart with so much joy.”

Between Thursday’s stop and a few others earlier in the week, Elf 1 estimated they gave away “tens of thousands of dollars.” He and his wife have been Secret Santas around Charlotte at least seven years, but said people’s responses never cease to be moving.

“It’s one of those things that stays in your head all year,” he said. “To hear people’s stories about how they got where they are … (and) to see that joy through those random acts of kindness.”