Creating an Angel Tree

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No child who celebrates Christmas should wake up on Christmas morning and find no gifts under the tree. Creating an angel tree is one simple way to help make sure that lower-income families in your local community have a very holiday season.

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Churches, businesses and community organizations often establish angel trees to collect Christmas gifts for kids of all ages as well as entire families or vulnerable adults. Angel trees differ from toy drives, like Toys for Tots, because participants purchase gifts with a specific person in mind.

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Knowing the name, age and even clothing sizes of an "angel" makes it easier to buy gifts that the person will really cherish and be able to use. And it makes this kind of gift exchange feel a little bit personal.

Here's the low-down on how an angel tree works to create magic.

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How an angel tree works

The concept behind an angel tree is simple:

  1. The organizer sets up a real or artificial Christmas tree in a central location. For example, in a business, the tree might be set up next to the front door or in the break room.
  2. Paper angel tags are hung from the branches. Each angel tree tag generally represents a local child, adult or family in need. Recipients might include low-income seniors or people living in shelters. The angel tags include some basic information about the recipient, including their age, clothing size, shoe size and maybe a few wish list items.
  3. Anyone who wants to help local needy families can go to the tree to pull off a tag. The gifter buys at least one item for the person or family on the tag and returns the gift to the angel tree by a certain deadline, with the tag attached to the outside of the gift.
  4. Volunteers may wrap the collected gifts, then distribute them to the recipients before Christmas.

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What about the Salvation Army Angel Tree Program?

Many people are familiar with the Salvation Army Angel Tree Program, which first began in a single shopping mall in 1979. Now, Salvation Army branches throughout the U.S. and Canada (though not all branches) run their own programs each year. Parents/guardians with limited financial resources can apply to the program on behalf of kids 12 and under. The Salvation Army assesses each application to verify the family's financial need and make sure the children aren't already signed up for a similar gift service from another public program. Then each qualified child's information goes on a tag.

These days, the Salvation Army's angel trees are set up exclusively in Walmart stores. Donors can also find their local Salvation Army's gift wishlist on the Walmart website and shop online for easy giving. Purchases can be shipped directly to the Salvation Army.

Planning an angel tree

There are some logistical questions to settle before creating an angel tree. Most importantly, for whom are you going to collect gifts, and how will you know what items those recipients would want to receive?

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Try coordinating with a local charity, nonprofit or community organization that works with low-income families or homeless populations to ask about hosting a tree for the people it serves. You'll need someone from the organization to provide you with some information about the people for whom you're collecting gifts. Stress the fact that you're not asking for personal information about any "angels" beyond first names (or even initials) and ages.

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Other questions organizers should answer include:

  • How far before Christmas should gifts be returned to the angel tree?
  • Gifters are generally asked not to wrap items, which lets the organizer verify that everyone is getting an appropriate present. Will you be wrapping the gifts yourself?
  • What will you do if some tags are left on the tree or if people take tags but they don't buy gifts?
  • Do you want to add a fundraising component? That way people who want to donate gifts to kids but don't want to shop can donate money instead, which you can use to buy gifts for unfilled tags.

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Creating angel tree tags

Like the Salvation Army, you'll need to create sturdy paper tags with a few key pieces of information. At a minimum, angel tree tags or angel tree labels include the age and gender of the recipient(s). They may also include a few things on the person's wish list as well as clothing sizes in case gifters want to buy cozy pajamas, shoes or other wearable items.

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Include a gift drop-off deadline at the top of each tag along with a request that the tag be taped to the unwrapped gift. This lets you keep track of which gift is intended for which recipient. Maintain a careful list of all the angel tree labels you create so you can keep track of which gifts have been purchased.

Organizing an online angel tree

A traditional angel tree works only if people are in proximity of the physical tree. Maybe your workplace has gone remote since the pandemic, and co-workers aren't in the office to pull tags from a real angel tree, or you want to organize an online angel tree with your extended family. With an online angel tree, donors can chip in from anywhere.

There are a lot of ways to set this up depending on how many people are involved. You might work with a local charitable organization to create a list of needy recipients and then spread the word that people should email you to get a random assignment if they want to participate. Have gifters ship things directly to you so you can wrap everything and coordinate with the charity about distributing gifts just before Christmas.

While organizing an angel tree does take some upfront work for you, it makes gifting really easy for the generous people around you. And knowing that kids are going to have wrapped presents under the tree makes Christmas time just a little less stressful for local families in need.

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