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This article was published 10/12/2019 (243 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
When Kai Madsen received a sales job transfer to Winnipeg from Calgary in the late 1960s, he found himself on a metaphorical island.
Posted: 10/12/2019 7:00 PM
I don’t know about you, but I’ve had a real case of the humbugs this year.
Normally, I get right into the holidays — you know, deck them halls and all that stuff. But, for whatever reason, December has felt extra dark and gloomy this year — and also like it’s been approximately 6,000 years long and not, as of this writing, 10 days — and I just haven’t been feeling especially Christmassy.
"I knew absolutely no one in Winnipeg, none," he says. "And I said to myself, ‘Well, Kai, if you’re going to be successful here, you’re going to have to get involved in your community."
So, he began volunteering for the Christmas Cheer Board, delivering the hampers that make the holidays brighter for thousands of Winnipeggers. That was 50 years ago. Now, Madsen, 78, is the executive director of the non-profit organization, which is also celebrating a significant milestone: its 100th anniversary.
"The only condition I attached to it was, as long as my health holds up and as long as I’m having fun," says Madsen, who is affectionately known as Winnipeg’s Santa. "If neither one are up to par, then I’m done. My health is, I wouldn’t say aces, but it’s OK. And I’m still having fun."
Madsen took a break from air-traffic controlling volunteers at Cheer Board HQ to reflect on his half-century with the organization, how he celebrates Christmas after the hampers are delivered, and the welcome escapism of Hallmark Christmas movies.
You have been at the Cheer Board for 50 of its 100 years. How does that make you feel? Do not say "old."
I’m rather surprised I lasted this long (laughs). No, the Cheer Board is an interesting organization. It has a magical way of wrapping itself around volunteers, pulling them in, and never letting them go. So, they become so much part of the Cheer Board family that we just go on and on and on and on. We all feel good about what we do and, when you have that good feeling — even though you might go home dead tired because that’s inevitable, you still go home feeling good.
Are these milestones bittersweet? They indicate the need that still exists in the city.
In one sense, you’re right. But what I’ve seen, in the last two or three years particularly, there’s been a small drop in the number of applications we’ve received. Prior to that we had huge increases all the way along, then it levelled off, and once in a while we see a slight decrease. I’m not an expert in social welfare, but I look at that and say, ‘that’s a positive sign.’ So maybe the people looking after those things, maybe they got some of it right. Otherwise, it would just keep growing. But we’re always going to have poverty. I don’t care what kind of utopian world you might live in, we’re always going to have poverty.
What is your most vivid memory from your time volunteering with the Cheer Board?
Are trying to make me cry? There are really so many. But I’ll tell you one, because I think I can get through it without crying. When I first moved to Winnipeg, my neighbour across the back was a firefighter and he had a buddy who was also a firefighter. I didn’t know the city and, of course, there was no GPS in those days, so I said to Bob, my neighbour, ‘Get your friend Pete, and I’ll get a van, and the three of us will go deliver hampers.’ We came to a location in Point Douglas. It looked like a standard bungalow, but I think it had nine of those mailboxes on the outside.
I knocked on the door and we asked about a certain person. And he says, ‘Oh, he’s upstairs.’ In the foyer, there was a light bulb hanging from a fixture, and it was covered in fly shit. It was gross. We went upstairs, and in a small room, was a man in his 80s. Totally bedridden. No food service. He had a table that someone had added length to, and a hotplate. My friend Bob had tears running down his face. He said, ‘Kai, I can’t handle this.’ And this is a firefighter.
I’m sure there are lots of stories like that. What motivates you to keep going?
I think that, part of the problem we have, is people feel like they don’t belong. Our little project says to them, ‘No, you do belong, and it’s important for you to belong.’ And if we can get that feeling of community firmly established, I think that has all kinds of positive spins. That’s why it’s important we do this work.
After the hampers are delivered, how do you celebrate the holidays?
I actually love Christmas. I cook. I was born in Copenhagen, so I’m sort of the designated Dane, and I make Danish rice pudding that all my friends clamour to have once a year because I only make it once a year. I also put my feet up and relax. This year, we’re having a gathering at our house.
Real tree or fake tree?
Well, I think it’s got to be real this year. My wife is adamant about it. I wasn’t keen about a real tree because they make such a mess, so I said, ‘Why don’t we just get some (scented spray)? Well. You should have seen the look I got. So it’s going to be a real tree. During my childhood it was always a real tree — and a real candle. They had these little silver cups that you clipped onto the branch. The little town I lived in (Torring, Denmark) had a community Christmas, and there, the tree would be 35 or 40 feet high, with candles. They had one guy with a bucket of water and a great big stick with a mop thing at the end of it, so if he saw something he could put it out.
Are you a television watcher?
I’m a sentimentalist. Don’t you laugh too much at this, but right now I have probably watched 15 movies from this Christmas Movie Parade.
Oh, like, the Hallmark Christmas movies?
Yeah! You know what? It’s relaxing. And the turmoil level within each is really quite low, to the point where you don’t get upset. Even if there is a little conflict, it’s not serious. And you know at the end they’re going to kiss.
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.
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