It's easy to overlook something important in the countdown to Christmas.
There's the frenzy of shopping, wrapping and meal-planning. The whirlwind of holiday parties. The baking to feed Santa and all his elves. The cards and gifts to send. The last-minute, still-to-do lists.
But amid the hustle and bustle are reminders of the spirit of Christmas -- the real meaning of the holiday that stretches beyond Dec. 25 into every day of the new year.
Just call them the Christmas random acts of kindness, a chance to give to others a helping hand from the heart.
Here are some examples, and no doubt there's plenty more:
º Several shoppers ready to pay off layaway items at Kmart found their bill already had been paid.
"We more or less tell them Santa helped them out," said Nancy Hively, an assistant manager at the store. "They're shocked. They don't know what's going on."
Anonymously making layaway payments at Christmas is a growing trend nationwide, but this is the first year Hively said it's happened at the Quincy store.
"The way the economy is this year, people can't afford too much for Christmas maybe," Hively said. "It's a wonderful thing that somebody is kind enough to do such a wonderful thing."
Donors tell Hively that they always have a wonderful Christmas and want somebody else to have the same thing.
"You don't see that happening very often," Hively said. "That brought tears to my eyes."
º Two men finished their business at the downtown post office and headed out the door at the same time as another customer, a woman they didn't know who had mailed some boxes and had more in her car. They generously offered to help with the next load, with one man carrying two boxes and the other holding the doors as she toted the final box.
º Students in the accelerated program in Baldwin South, their families and friends donated more than $2,500 for the annual Angel Tree effort. The students -- some decked out in red and green socks, reindeer antlers and red noses -- shopped for the angels last Friday at Walmart. Parents lend a hand with the shopping expedition, impressed with the thought that goes into making the gift selections, the care to stay under budget and the joy the students find in helping others.
"It feels good to make somebody's Christmas happy," one fifth-grader said. "I think everybody should do something like this. Everyone deserves a happy Christmas."
º For several years, a Secret Santa has bought gift cards to hand out to shoppers at the Hy-Vee store on Harrison.
Store employees say surprising a shopper with one of the cards to buy their groceries really makes someone's day.
"It is a great act of kindness. It's wonderful that people do that for others," said Tammy Newton, who works in customer service.
Random acts from offering a genuine smile to leaving a quarter in the Aldi shopping carts for the next customer can brighten someone's day any time of year.
"We see more of it at Christmas, but I wish we saw it all year long," Newton said. "It's awesome to see something positive. Instead of hearing all the negative, there's a lot of positive out there."