Mysterious Secret Santa Donates $1 Million to Give Away This Year in East Idaho

Nate Eaton, news director of East Idaho News, has been facilitating the surprises for the last seven years since the “Secret Santa” is anonymous. He’s the one showing up on doorsteps handing out the presents.

Susan Andrews gasps as she lifts the lid on a perfectly wrapped box with a pristine ribbon. Her husband, Steve, opens the other box. Inside: two checks totaling $15,000 from a stranger. 

“Holy Moly!” Steve said looking down at the zeros. “Merry Christmas!,” Susan replied back in a tone that makes you shiver. 

The couple, who have helped Old Saint Nick by dressing up as Santa and Mrs. Claus for the last 25 years had to hit pause on their tradition for the second year in a row. Last year, they couldn’t volunteer in schools like they enjoy doing because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, it’s because Steve has cancer. 

The $15,000 for Santa’s helpers likely going to offset those medical costs is a much-needed surprise from a Secret Santa himself. 

Nate Eaton, news director of East Idaho News, has been facilitating the surprises for the last seven years. Since the “Secret Santa” is anonymous, Eaton has become the face of the entire operation. He’s the one showing up on doorsteps handing out the presents to people in the East Idaho region. That’s roughly about 350,000 homes, he said. 

When the tradition started in 2013, the Secret Santa asked Eaton to pass out $100,000.

Now, it’s grown to $1 million. 

“I was shocked. I'll be honest with you,” Eaton told Inside Edition Digital over Zoom in his annual interview with us. He is the only one on his team who knows Santa's true identity. 

Eaton wants to be clear about who he is: “It’s one person. It's not a program. It's not a corporation. It's not like it's trust fund or anything. It's actually a living person who just enjoys giving his money away.”

The Secret Santa told Eaton that he felt “there’s a lot of need” in their community this year as many people are struggling with the aftermath of the pandemic and economical impact from it. So, his team of elves has started earlier. They’re doing bigger surprises and handing out bigger gifts. 

“The number of nominations we've already seen has been higher than in years past,” Eaton said.

To be eligible for the secret santa surprise, you must live in the East Idaho region and be nominated to be a recipient. Eaton said they will continue reviewing nominations for weeks to come and always consults with Secret Santa himself, who watches many of the surprises from his home. 

“Are you kidding?!” sobbed kindergarten teacher Darci Orchard as she was surprised with a car in 2020. 

“This is amazing,” Carissa Heaps, a mom of eight who is also caring for many ill family members, exclaimed as she was also gifted a car last year. 

A blind man and his wife, Robert and Phoenix Rowley, got hundreds of dollars in gift cards and a $5,000 cashier’s check to help pay off mounting medical bills. 

Each check is carefully folded into a homemade decorated box with wrapping paper and fancy bows. Another woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, makes them each year for the surprises.

After seven years of being the face of this mysterious Secret Santa, one might think once the doorbell rings with Eaton and his camera crew, the family inside would realize what’s about to happen. But there are still many people who don’t, like Steve and Susan. 

“The holiday spirit was taken from [Steve] and we showed up with $15,000 and it just blew him away,” Eaton said of their encounter. “And he had no clue who we were. Those are the types that love: when they don't know who we are. Because if they know who we are, they know that they're probably going to get a big gift. But [those who] have no clue who we are, it's even better.”

There are many people around the world and in other cities who have seen the surprises since videos of them are posted on East Idaho News’s website, and Inside Edition has covered this story for a handful of years, as well. And Eaton says many people contact him offering to contribute to East Idaho’s Secret Santa. But, he discourages this. 

Noting, “Do something in your community with whatever you have and we promise you'll feel better if you get to do it rather than having us do it.”