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Origins & Rise of The Secret Santa Tradition

Updated January 1, 2022
Origins & Rise of The Secret Santa Tradition

In recent years, the Secret Santa tradition has become increasingly popular in offices and schools across the U.S. and in Europe.

This anonymous Christmas gift exchange is mainly perceived as a fun way to bring in holiday cheer, but not many know its history and original meaning.

The truth is, the Secret Santa gift exchange didn’t start out just for fun. The man behind this tradition had deeply philanthropical intentions, aiming to help those in need.

The real-life Secret Santa’s generosity was the very embodiment of the Christmas spirit.

He didn’t ask for anything in return and didn’t want to disclose his identity. The world found out his name only a year before he passed away.

Today, the legacy of Secret Santa continues not solely in the form of fun gift exchanges. Numerous organizations across the USA spread love and care to those in need by participating in anonymous charity.

Secret Santa Rules

In case you aren’t closely familiar or haven’t participated in the Secret Santa tradition, you may like to find out the rules.

A group of people, typically within an office, educational institution, or another community, are assigned to get a gift to a random person. The gift receiver names can be drawn from a hat or chosen using a dedicated phone app.

Most importantly, the gift receiver shouldn’t know who their Santa is. Ideally, others within the community shouldn’t know it either, as this may lead to someone revealing the secret to the receiver.

Before Christmas Eve, people should get their gift to the receiver without them noticing it. That’s the trickiest part.

The gift-giver should wait for the perfect time when the receiver leaves the room, and the Secret Santa isn’t the only one remaining inside. Otherwise, Secret Santa’s identity would be too easy to guess.

Traditionally, the name of the Secret Santa remains a secret. After all, it doesn’t matter – Christmas is about sharing and caring without expecting anything in return.

However, in some variations, guessing is the most anticipated and fun element of the custom. Often, gift-givers would leave a letter along with their gift containing hints on their identity.

The Real Secret Santa Beginnings

Secret Santa is an exclusively Western tradition, and that’s no wonder, as it originated in the USA. The tradition was influenced by a real person, philanthropist Larry Dean Stewart who was born in 1948 in Kansas City.

Larry Dean Stewart, who is now known as the origin of Secret Santa, came from a poor background. In the early 1970s, he was down on his luck and had to ask for free food at the Dixie Diner café in Mississippi.

Stewart’s luck didn’t come back even in the following decade. He was fired twice just before Christmas in the late 1970s and was becoming quite desperate.

According to Stewart’s interview, in 1979, he was sitting in a drive-through café on a cold winter day. He then noticed a carhop who worked outside without any jacket and felt bad for her.

Stewart gave the carhop his last $20. Suddenly, she broke down in tears and said it meant so much to her.

Since that time, Stewart would hand money to people in need even though he didn’t have much himself, wandering the city streets on December evenings.

Stewart preferred to hand people cash directly, avoiding charitable organizations. This way, he could be sure that the money wasn’t stolen.

Stewart also believed that people shouldn’t have to stay in line, beg, or apply to get the bare minimum help.

The Real Secret Santa Philanthropy

In the 1980s, Stewart’s situation started to improve rapidly. He got into cable television and long-distance calling business and eventually became a millionaire.

As Larry Dean Stewart’s earnings grew, his donations also increased. He became known as the Kansas City Secret Santa.

At some point, real-life Secret Santa moved to New Orleans and then to New York, expanding the circle of people he made happier.

Larry Dean Stewart donated over $25,000 in $100 bills to people who suffered from the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City. And after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Mississippi area in 2005, he traveled there to help.

After superstorm Sandy, Stewart gave out over $100,000 to people who suffered from it to help them repair their housing. Over the scope of 26 years, Larry Dean Stewart gave out millions of dollars to people as Secret Santa.

Secret Santa Reveals Himself

Larry Dean Stewart’s identity was kept secret until 2006, when he was diagnosed with cancer. He passed away a year later.

Some people suspected that Stewart’s illness was the reason he decided to come out as the real Secret Santa. However, this wasn’t true.

In his interview for the Dave Ramsey Radio Show, Stewart said that he came out because a large tabloid was going to reveal his identity. He did this before they published the news to prevent them from stealing his story.

Secret Santa Legacy

Larry Dean Stewart’s coming out was widely supported by celebrities and other philanthropists, such as Oprah Winfrey, Dick Butkus, and George Brett.

And even after Stewart’s death, his legacy remained and continued to inspire others to do good deeds.

The next day after he passed away, Stewart was given the John Buck O’Neill Award for his philanthropic efforts.

In 2014, an anonymous businessman recruited local police officers in Jackson County to hand out $100 bills to “suspects” who they thought would need the help.

Today, multiple communities of Larry Dean Stewart followers across the US spread love and holiday cheer every Christmas season.

For instance, the Secret Santa Society established in 2015 in Texas raises resources for local charities and families.

However, the largest and best-known Society of Secret Santas is closely related to the original Secret Santa, Larry Dean Stewart.

The Society of Secret Santas is based in Kansas City, the same place the original Secret Santa was born. In fact, the head of the society was recruited by Stewart himself to replace him after his death back in 2006.

The name of the new head Secret Santa isn’t openly disclosed. What we know is that this person was initially Stewart’s “elf” under the number 32A, who has been helping him since 2003.

Some speculate this may be the former football player for Chicago Bears Dick Butkus. However, the official society spokesman claims he’s a local businessman, “very low-key.”

The society members continue to distribute $100 bills to people in need, particularly those who suffered from nature cataclysms or criminal offenses. Each year, they participate in “sleigh rides,” visiting different states across the USA.

Pat O’Neill, the official spokesman for the Society of Secret Santas, estimates that Larry Dean Stewart could have donated about $1.5 million throughout the years. Modern-day Secret Santas, in turn, hand out $10,000 to $50,000 every year.

Each $100 bill issued by the society members is stamped with “Larry Stewart, Secret Santa” to honor the memory of the man behind the movement.

The number of society members constantly changes depending on their personal and financial situation since Secret Santas aren’t paid for what they’re doing. O’Neill says that the group consists of multiple dozens of people.

The head of the Society of Secret Santas trains his group members how to spot people with sad facial expressions and how to move quickly to avoid getting photographed.

Secret Santa Regional Variations

The traditional version of Secret Santa gift exchange is the most common in the USA. People are randomly assigned gift receivers and should deliver the gift unnoticed.

Typically, the gift giver’s identity remains a secret. However, this isn’t the only version of the secret gift exchange tradition.

The popular game white elephant, also known as Dirty Santa, is in a sense a loonier alternative to Secret Santa.

Unlike the Secret Santa tradition that’s dedicated to truly helping people, Dirty Santa’s purpose is merely entertainment.

The term “white elephant” refers to an odd, impractical present. It arises from the historical practice imposed by the King of Siam of gifting rare albino elephants to courtiers who had displeased him.

As the albino elephant’s upkeeping costs were huge, the courtiers often became bankrupt.

Each participant of the game buys one gift and wraps it. Usually, all gifts are about of the same value. All gifts are then put together, and participants take turns choosing one box from the pile or can steal from another participant.

The game finishes when everyone has a gift. Each gift can only be stolen once per game to avoid never-ending circles. The gift-giver identity may remain a secret or be guessed, just like in the original Secret Santa game.

Some communities participate in the Conspiracy Santa game, where all group members choose a secret gift for one member. It’s a great way to collectively learn something new about your colleagues or classmates.

Online Secret Santa gift exchanges have become increasingly popular in different social communities. People who don’t even know each other personally use online generators to assign gift receivers and send their gifts by post.

Image credit: Unsplash

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