How Does the Salvation Army's Angel Tree Program Work?

The Salvation Army's Angel Giving Tree program begins with corporate sponsors placing a Christmas tree decorated with paper angels in a high-traffic area, such as a lobby. Each decoration features the age, gender, needs and wants of a needy child or senior citizen who may not get anything for Christmas without the program. Individuals can take one or more decorations off the tree, purchase items for the individual represented and donate them so the Salvation Army can deliver them.

The exact particulars of the program vary by region, with factors such as eligible age and income levels, distribution methods and decorations changing based on location. For example, the gifts are broken into age brackets and distributed to needy parents to give to their children in Alaska, while bear tags are substituted for paper angels in some locations. The point of the program, allowing good Samaritans to play Santa for an individual in need, is the same regardless of the minute details.

Needy families desiring assistance generally begin the application process in October, giving the Salvation Army two months to organize the logistics of the program. The Salvation Army usually requires extra volunteers to help distribute the presents.

The program traces its history back to 1979, when Majors Charles and Shirley White worked to provide clothing and toys to children at Christmas time. They identified the children's holiday wishes on Hallmark cards featuring angels, providing the program with both its name and a nickname for the needy recipients. The Whites were transferred to Nashville, Tennessee, in 1982 and partnered with the popular WSM radio station, giving the program the national exposure it needed to become one of the Salvation Army's most iconic events.