NASHVILLE — It was an idea inspired by angels.
Dozens of sweet-eyed cherubs -- former companions from the face of a Hallmark card -- cut apart and suspended from the pine-needled branches of a mall Christmas tree, silently soliciting the attention of passers-by.
On the back of each angel was the name of a little girl or boy and a small list of wishes -- the wants and needs of those who could not afford much.
The concept was the design of Shirley and Charles White, a humble couple who worked for the Salvation Army and wanted something simple: to provide clothing and toys for children at Christmastime.
"It became the Angel Tree," Shirley White said.
That was 34 Christmases ago. Today, along with the familiar red kettles, the Angel Tree program is one of the Salvation Army's highest-profile Christmas support programs.
What began as a singular effort in the center court of a Lynchburg, Va., shopping mall in 1979 blossomed in Nashville when the Whites moved here three years later.
The on-air exposure brought to the program through Music City's own WSM radio, which airs the "Grand Ole Opry," as well as national publicity on CNN and the Larry King radio show, helped word of the Angel Tree spread across the country.
Now, the program assists nearly 5,000 Nashville families and upward of 1 million across the country. And the Angel Tree's founders -- who have served in cities across the Southeast -- have retired in the place where the program has grown and thrived.
"It reflects what Christmas is really about," Charles White said. "Not getting, but giving."
And the Whites remain its true angels.
Charles and Shirley White have been involved with the Salvation Army since they were children.
They grew up in the Salvation Army church in Owensboro, Ky.
They went to Sunday school together. One day, Charles White looked up at the woman who would become his wife and thought, "She's a pretty good-looking girl."
They were married as teenagers. In 1965, they packed up their little car, trailer and the first two of their soon-to-be-four kids and moved to Atlanta for Salvation Army officers' training school.
Known mostly for its social service programs, the Salvation Army also is a denomination -- an evangelical part of the universal Christian Church. There are more than 1,224 Salvation Army corps nationwide, according to the organization's annual report, with 3,573 officers.
Typically, new officers must complete a two-year training program, which in essence is seminary school. The Whites crammed 300 hours of schooling into less than two years. When they were finished, they were ordained in the Salvation Army and commissioned with the rank of lieutenant.
As officers, they were assigned to communities most in need of their skills. Their first placement was in West Virginia, where they spent six years; that was followed by nine years in Virginia, including a five-year stay in Lynchburg.
A city bordered by the eastern edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains and located about 180 miles southwest of the nation's capital, Lynchburg is where the first Angel Tree was fashioned.
"We didn't recognize it at the time, but I believe the Angel Tree program was directed by God and put into our minds to share what Christmas is really all about," Charles White said. "... God gave his best gift in his loving generosity. Now, we're the mediators between those who have and those who have not, and all we're doing is bringing those folks together."
When they moved to Nashville in 1982, they brought the idea with them. Many volunteers in the city were already doing traditional bell ringing, but this was something new. Angels were hung in 100 Oaks, Green Hills and Hickory Hollow malls.
Here, the Angel Tree sprouted more branches.
"This is where it took off," Charles White said. "Nashville was the catalyst that got it growing and started it spreading across the United States."
In 2012, more than 85,645 gifts were distributed to 18,659 impoverished children and elderly in the Nashville area. The city's operation runs out of a 50,000-square-foot warehouse, where row upon row of plastic bags expand like Santa's sack, overflowing with socks, stuffed animals, coats and XBox games.
"It's unbelievable, the generosity in this community," Charles White said.
And that's just one city.
"I never even dreamed that it would do what it's done," Shirley White said.
It has fulfilled the dreams of so many.
When country singer Jimmy Wayne was 10, he, his mother and his sister lived in a trailer. There was no money for food, no money for gifts. Still, on Christmas morning, two wrapped items appeared under the tree.
It wasn't much, but for children who weren't used to getting anything, to be remembered by a stranger was everything.
With his mother in and out of prison and him in and out of foster homes, the Army was a sort of salvation.
One Christmas, he wished for a guitar, and someone who picked his name off a tree fulfilled the fantasy. It was Wayne's first guitar, and the musician makes much of that moment.
"I wouldn't have had Christmas when I was a kid if it hadn't been for the Angel Tree program," he said.
The program had such a profound impact on Wayne, years later, when he found success in Music City, he wrote a song to raise awareness. In 2004, he released "Paper Angels." The following year, he met the founders of the program that helped change the trajectory of his life.
"It's amazing to hear the Godfather talk," Wayne said of Charles White. "These people are very in touch, and very spiritual, and very humble. ... Man, I am thankful for them."
As are thousands of others.
When Amanda Grieves has the opportunity, she relishes introducing Angel Tree recipients to those who began the program. "Want to meet the founders?" she asks with excitement.
Grieves was hired as the Angel Tree program coordinator in 2005. The program had blossomed beyond what the Whites left when they were reassigned to another city in 1988. But when they returned here several years ago, Grieves said it was a little nerve-racking.
"They created it, so you wanted to make sure it was as they envisioned it and as they wanted it to be," Grieves said.
But it is that, and so much more.
Yes, Grieves said, people may say, "It's just Christmas toys. You can live without toys."
But when families come to the Salvation Army asking for help, "they are so broken, and they have so many clouds -- a lot of stuff and junk going on," she said.
When they leave carrying a bag overflowing with wants and needs, Grieves said, they are overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers.
The idea that someone they don't know -- someone who doesn't know them or their hardship -- has given them gifts, "That's where the impact is," Grieves said. "That's what will cause them to tear up as they are walking to their car, just shaking and crying because they cannot believe that. ...
"It's just a beautiful, beautiful act of kindness and humanity. I love it."