Lifestyle & Human Interest

Story Behind Little White Envelope Placed in the Tree Each Year Will Leave You in Tears


It can be difficult to find just the right gift for some people. There are those whose interests don’t sync with the latest trends and those who appreciate quality time and acts of service far more than anything you could buy for them.

One woman discovered the perfect gift for her husband decades ago, and the tradition she started has found its way into many homes during Christmas.

You may have seen this story by Nancy Gavin circulating — perhaps you practice her tradition yourself. If not, settle in for a heart-warming tale of true gift-giving.

“It’s just a small, white envelope stuck among the branches of our Christmas tree. No name, no identification, no inscription. It has peeked through the branches of our tree for the past ten years or so.

“It all began because my husband Mike hated Christmas — oh, not the true meaning of Christmas, but the commercial aspects of it — overspending … the frantic running around at the last minute to get a tie for Uncle Harry and the dusting powder for Grandma — the gifts given in desperation because you couldn’t think of anything else.

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“Knowing he felt this way, I decided one year to bypass the usual shirts, sweaters, ties and so forth. I reached for something special just for Mike. The inspiration came in an unusual way.”

“Our son Kevin, who was 12 that year, was wrestling at the junior level at the school he attended; and shortly before Christmas, there was a non-league match against a team sponsored by an inner-city church. These youngsters, dressed in sneakers so ragged that shoestrings seemed to be the only thing holding them together, presented a sharp contrast to our boys in their spiffy blue and gold uniforms and sparkling new wrestling shoes. As the match began, I was alarmed to see that the other team was wrestling without headgear, a kind of light helmet designed to protect a wrestler’s ears.

“It was a luxury the ragtag team obviously could not afford. Well, we ended up walloping them. We took every weight class. And as each of their boys got up from the mat, he swaggered around in his tatters with false bravado, a kind of street pride that couldn’t acknowledge defeat.

Will your Christmas tree have a little white envelope on it this year?

“Mike, seated beside me, shook his head sadly, ‘I wish just one of them could have won,’ he said. ‘They have a lot of potential, but losing like this could take the heart right out of them.’ Mike loved kids – all kids — and he knew them, having coached little league football, baseball and lacrosse. That’s when the idea for his present came. That afternoon, I went to a local sporting goods store and bought an assortment of wrestling headgear and shoes and sent them anonymously to the inner-city church. On Christmas Eve, I placed the envelope on the tree, the note inside telling Mike what I had done and that this was his gift from me. His smile was the brightest thing about Christmas that year and in succeeding years. For each Christmas, I followed the tradition–one year sending a group of mentally handicapped youngsters to a hockey game, another year a check to a pair of elderly brothers whose home had burned to the ground the week before Christmas, and on and on.

“The envelope became the highlight of our Christmas. It was always the last thing opened on Christmas morning and our children, ignoring their new toys, would stand with wide-eyed anticipation as their dad lifted the envelope from the tree to reveal its contents.

“As the children grew, the toys gave way to more practical presents, but the envelope never lost its allure. The story doesn’t end there.

“You see, we lost Mike last year due to dreaded cancer. When Christmas rolled around, I was still so wrapped in grief that I barely got the tree up. But Christmas Eve found me placing an envelope on the tree, and in the morning, it was joined by three more.

“Each of our children, unbeknownst to the others, had placed an envelope on the tree for their dad. The tradition has grown and someday will expand even further with our grandchildren standing to take down the envelope.

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“Mike’s spirit, like the Christmas spirit will always be with us.”

But the story didn’t end there, either.

The most complete form of this story traces back to a website called the White Envelope Project, which was created to encourage others to pick up this gift-giving method.

Over 20 years after the story was published, Gavin’s son Kevin decided to poke around on the internet to see if their tradition had continued into other homes. He’d recently been contacted by a man who was desperately searching for relatives of the writer, and that got him wondering if there were still echoes of his mother’s story online. There were.

“Thanks for putting my mother’s story on the web,” Kevin wrote on a post of his mother’s story in Feb. 2007. “Her name is Nancy W. Gavin. The story first appeared in Woman’s Day magazine in 1982. She had sent the story in as a contest entry in which she subsequently won first place. Unfortunately, she passed away from cancer two years after the story was published.”

The man searching for Nancy Gavin’s relatives, after sending out 190 letters, finally got in touch with Kevin and was able to glean more details and round out the story on the White Envelope Project website.

As the Editor’s Note on the website states, “This true story was originally published in the December 14, 1982 issue of Woman’s Day magazine. It was the first place winner out of thousands of entries in the magazine’s ‘My Most Moving Holiday Tradition’ contest in which readers were asked to share their favorite holiday tradition and the story behind it. The story inspired a family from Atlanta, Georgia to start The White Envelope Project and Giving101, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating youth about the importance of giving.”

As for Kevin, he was just happy that his mother’s charity lived on through others.

“Feel free to use the story,” his comment concluded. “It gives me and my sisters great joy to know that it lives on and has hopefully inspired others to reach out in a way that truly honors the spirit of Christmas.”

So, how about it — will your tree have a Little White Envelope on it this year?

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