Jose Castellanos said he got tears in his eyes when an anonymous woman spontaneously paid off the Christmas toy he was buying on layaway for his young daughter, then purchased other gifts for the girl, including a new bike.
The Kahului resident said he was stunned and moved by the gesture from a woman who said she was Jewish but wanted to teach her daughters that Christmas was about helping others.
"Even now, it feels so awesome," he said. "It totally changed the way you think about the meaning of this day."
Maui retailers said they had seen numerous examples of "layaway Santas" paying off accounts for Christmas gifts this season.
Kmart store manager Rick Raglan said around 25 people had come in to pay off strangers' layaway accounts for a total value of around $5,000. Many said they were inspired by newspaper accounts of layaway Santas across the state and country.
"All the employees get goosebumps," Raglan said. "A lot of (the customers whose accounts were paid off) were overwhelmed, they just couldn't believe it. Several cried, and got all the associates crying along with them."
Another customer came in to purchase $5,000 worth of bunk-beds and bedding materials, saying he was planning to donate the items to island shelters and charities.
"It's nice to see that, as tight as times are, there's still people out there giving," Raglan said.
Wal-Mart store manager Chanda Keawe said a single anonymous donor paid off around 15 different layaway accounts. A second donor paid two accounts, for a total value of more than $1,000.
"The customers just really felt surprised at first, and very honored and thankful, very thankful," Keawe said.
Castellanos said he and his wife and daughter were preparing for a small Christmas celebration, after the rest of their extended family members moved back to California earlier this year.
On Friday night, Castellanos, who works as a delivery driver for The Maui News, was shopping for toys at Kmart while his wife distracted their daughter, Luz Maria, in a different part of the store.
"This Barbie toy she wanted, it was kind of expensive for us, so I was going to put it on layaway and pick it up maybe next week," he said.
While he was at the cash register, a woman behind him asked if the toy was for his daughter, and he said yes.
"She asked me how old she was," he said. "I told her, '4 years old.' She just gave the cashier a card and said, 'Don't charge him anything. We'll pay it off.'"
The woman was with her own three daughters, who looked between the ages of 5 and 14.
After paying for the toy, "she asked the girls, 'What else would a 4-year-old like?'" Castellanos recalled. "I said, 'Don't worry,' but they bought a little bike for my daughter - a bike, with the helmet and the pads and all that."
Castellanos said he tried to tell the woman she didn't need to buy the items.
"I was like, 'There's people out there who really, really need stuff.' I'm going through a tough time, but I don't really need it," he said. "But she said, 'It's not for you, it's for your daughter.' "
Castellanos said they put the toys out of sight so he could call his wife and daughter to come and meet the woman.
As they were walking out of the store, the woman told him she didn't celebrate the holiday because she was Jewish but that she wanted to teach her own daughters that the true meaning of Christmas was "making other people feel happy."
She said she was on her way to the airport to drop off the girls, who were flying to the Mainland to spend Christmas with their father.
Castellanos said he was so moved by the exchange that it wasn't until he was loading the items into his car that he realized he hadn't asked for the woman's name. He went back to look for her, but she was gone.
He said the experience had changed his perspective about Christmas.
"My wife and I were talking on the way home, telling each other, 'We grumble for all this stuff that doesn't have any sense,'" he recalled. "My daughter goes, 'How come you guys are crying?' Both of us had teary eyes, because it's something you never expect to happen."
* Ilima Loomis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.