In November 2019, a nearly year-old “Maui 24/7” post titled “THE LITTLE WHITE ENVELOPE” (alternately: “the Man Who Hated Christmas”) circulated virally on social media:
Text attached to an image told a heartstrings-tugging tale of the meaning of Christmas, a bit like a Hallmark Movie Channel effort in Facebook post form. In its common form, the story is a recognizable example of “glurge,” a word coined years before on a nascent internet newly introduced to the saccharine forwards intended to read as uplifting.
Glurge is a “super-trope … meant to be purely sentimental parables, touching hearts and teaching morals.” The Chicken Soup for the Soul genre book series is often cited as a meta-example of glurge, and appropriately enough, the “little white envelope” story was referenced in a 2018 Christmas edition of the series. Glurge of that type continues to be regularly shared after moving from email to forums, which is sometimes appreciated but often considered unpleasant by many readers due to its one-dimensionality:
The problem is, they accomplish this by simplifying their message to the point of complete uselessness to any reader who thinks about it seriously. All shades of grey between the black and white of good and evil are wholly overlooked, meaning potentially more valuable lessons about actual hard work, understanding, personal growth and sacrifice are completely ignored in the rush to present a universe in which everything happens for a satisfying reason.
Credited to as a “true Christmas Story by Nancy W. Gavin” in December 2015, it read:
THE LITTLE WHITE ENVELOPE: “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.
It all began because my husband Mike hated Christmas. Oh, not the true meaning of Christmas, but the commercial aspects of it — overspending and 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.
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 on the wrestling team at the school he attended. 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. 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. He so enjoyed coaching 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 a small, white envelope on the tree, the note inside telling Mike what I had done, and that this was his gift from me.
Mike’s smile was the brightest thing about Christmas that year. And that same bright smile lit up 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 white 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 small, white 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 the next morning, I found it was magically joined by three more. Unbeknownst to the others, each of our three children had for the first time placed a white envelope on the tree for their dad. The tradition has grown and someday will expand even further with our grandchildren standing to take down that special envelope.
Mike’s spirit, like the Christmas spirit will always be with us.”
For the Man Who Hated Christmas
(A true Christmas Story by Nancy W. Gavin, December 2015)
In the appended text as told by Nancy Gavin, a pre-Christmas wrestling match between her son’s school and an underprivileged competing team with no protective headgear inspired a tradition which upended her husband Mike’s distaste for the holiday. An “anonymous gift” to the opposing team of protective gear was announced via a little white envelope hidden in the tree’s branches, kicking off an annual tradition in the family.
Sadly, Mike died of cancer “last year,” presumably 2014 if the date was correct. A newly-widowed Nancy was unprepared for that year’s Christmas, but still she managed to place the small white envelope on her tree. On Christmas morning, she said she discovered three more envelopes placed by the couple’s children, and said she expected the tradition to carry on in their family.
Iterations of the tale also appeared on Twitter:
This inspirational story will absolutely and wonderfully impact your heart! Be blessed! SHORT INSPIRATIONAL READ: “Christmas Story: For the Man Who Hated Christmas” #InspirationalStory #Christmashttps://t.co/XBjddJb5sD pic.twitter.com/gOdSrSWuSF
— Tim Burt (@TimBurt) December 24, 2018
Between November 17 and 18 2019, the post went from around 240,000 shares to more than 300,000, the Gavins’ Christmas tradition of a little white envelope clearly still touching readers on Facebook. The “Maui 24/7” pag didn’t include any source for the story or its provided dates, and a reverse image search showed that the photograph with the Facebook post was from 2014 or earlier:
A version shared on the blog TwoSouthernSweeties.com included no contextual information about the little white envelope story. According to that site, the post “literally went viral and broke our website” when it was shared in 2016.
Although the tale was dated 2015 on Facebook, it appeared in large part in an archived [PDF] sermon from December 2012. It made appearances even earlier than that, appearing on a casting call in 2010, two blogs in December 2008, a forum in December 2007, and on Bible.org in 2005.
In December 2009, the Woman’s Day magazine website published Gavin’s story. The magazine said that it had first appeared in print on December 14, 1982.
Many of those early iterations included information about a related website (WhiteEnvelopeProject.org) and a verbatim post script indicating that Nancy Gavin died not long after her husband Mike:
This story is indeed a true story and inspired four siblings from Atlanta, GA to start The White Envelope Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting this tradition and charitable giving. The White Envelope Project founders are regularly in touch with the family in the article and are thrilled to have their support. Sadly, Nancy Gavin (the author) died less than two years after her husband – also of “the dreaded cancer.” Her legacy lives on as the Gavin family and now thousands of others continue to celebrate the “white envelope” tradition each year. For more information about The White Envelope Project or to honor a loved one through a “white envelope” gift this year, please visit their website www.WhiteEnvelopeProject.org
Links to WhiteEnvelopeProject.org redirected to a different domain, Giving101.org, and a sub-page on that site, as well as on a PDF page. (At the bottom appeared a link to a Facebook page for the White Envelope Project.) An “Editor’s Note” section at the bottom of a version of the story explained:
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.
According to Giving101.org’s landing page, the White Envelope Project grew into a larger organization:
Giving101 is a nonprofit that is passionate about unleashing the amazing power of contagious giving.
We were founded by four siblings in 2006 under the name of our flagship program, White Envelope Project. Since its inception, the program has attracted national media attention that has resulted in exposure to more than 5 million people in over 100 countries.
We have launched a handful of other programs, most notably Expedition Give, a unique twist on a city wide scavenger hunt powering good in Atlanta. While it was extremely successful and saw hundreds of people, charities, and volunteers participate, it required more resources than available to us to execute to our levels of satisfaction. Please contact us if you would like to lead restarting this program.
We continue to be entirely volunteer-run and donor-supported and are proud to be able to spread this message of giving around the world without any permanent staff, office space, etc.
In February 2007, the Gavins’ son Kevin submitted additional information about his parents, the tradition, and the project that had sprung up out of it. According to Kevin Gavin, friends alerted him to the fact his mother’s story leapt from print to the internet and grew in popularity as it began spreading, and he was saddened to see versions credited to “anonymous” rather than Nancy Gavin:
Thanks for putting my mother’s story on the web. 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.
Our family still keeps the tradition started by her and my father and we have passed it on to our children. I had not really thought about the publication of the story for many years but I was contacted a few days ago by a gentleman from Atlanta who has started a charitable foundation called the “White Envelope Project”. He had sent out over 190 letters to people with the surname Gavin looking for my mother or her relatives so that he could learn more about the story. You can view his web site at www.whiteenvelopeproject.org.
I had heard from some friends that the story had circulated in e-mail form but it never occurred to me to google it and see what popped up. Quite a few hits some of which have credited my mother and others listed the author as anonymous. I thought I would try to contact those with anonymous to get the omission cleared up.
Feel free to use the story. 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.
Kevin P. Gavin
The story alternately titled “The Little White Envelope” or “The Man Who Hated Christmas” in circulation on Facebook was accurately credited to Nancy W. Gavin, but it was misdated as having taken place in 2015. Gavin’s piece was printed in Woman’s Day in December 1982, and she died not long after her husband.
At some point, the story re-emerged on a pre-social internet, spreading on blogs, forums, and via email (often credited to “anonymous.”) Gavin’s son endeavored to amend that omission in 2007, one year after he and three siblings founded the White Envelope Project, which is now part of the nonprofit group Giving101.