For a century, the Christmas Cheer Board has been there to help put the merry back into Christmas for the people who need it.
What started as a veterans organization, helped by a multitude of churches to assist the widows and children of soldiers who didn’t come back from the First World War, has through the decades become a secular organization which annually helps thousands of low socio-economic families, couples, people with disabilities, seniors and children.
For all of those years, Winnipeg’s local media have been akin to elves, helping Santa help the community — and the Free Press has been one of them.
Through the newspaper’s various fundraising initiatives, including Spirit of Christmas, Pennies from Heaven, and Miracle on Mountain, its readers have helped raise millions of dollars, converted by the Cheer Board into food hampers and toys to brighten, for many, what would have been a grey Christmas.
For those 100 years, whether it is in the wake of a world war, Great Depression, swinging ‘60s, or in the first years of a new century — there are local people in need.
For 50 of those years, Kai Madsen has been there. He started delivering hampers and rose to become the head of the organization in 1994, after about 20 years serving as president of its board of directors.
"The first year I came, we did about 5,000 hampers," he said in a recent interview. "Since then it has grown, grown, grown to last year, when we handled over 17,000. The need is still there, but it has levelled off."
Madsen said the number of hampers has dropped from the 23,000 the Winnipeg group was distributing about a dozen years ago.
"I think it shows things are working, to some degree, in fighting poverty and making sure the safety net is doing what it is supposed to do — but we still have tremendous poverty."
Madsen is joined full time at this time of year by Linda Grayston, assistant executive director, and Sheila Worboys, board administration manager. Grayston has been with the organization for 19 years; Worboys joined in 2010.
"I go to toy shows earlier in the year, and we order some in May and June," Grayston said. "The food is also ordered months ago. Food is ordered in the summer, too."
Worboys said volunteers are surprised when they first come to help and discover how "grassroots we are."
"They see the operations of the (Canadian) Cancer Society or Siloam (Mission), but they soon know that they are year-round, while we are not."
In the latter days of the First World War, as many Manitobans died on the fields of battle and their loved ones heard they had lost a husband or a father, various churches and other agencies began creating cheer funds to help people at Christmas time.
Under the headline "Veterans look after unfortunate friends" published in December 1919, the Manitoba Veteran Widows and Orphans Fund was used to provide holiday entertainment, including a Christmas tree, in the Board of Trade building for "364 war widows, 700 children and 40 members of the Amputations association."
"Seldom, if ever, have the children enjoyed themselves more than they did on this occasion, and not a one was overlooked... Each child was presented... with a pair of stockings purchased through this fund, and also received a present from the Christmas tree and his orange."
Another article, published the same month, referred to a $500 donation by the Returned Soldiers Aid and War Widows Association to the Citizens’ Christmas Cheer Fund.
That same year, Manitoba Veteran Widows and Orphans was endorsed as a Christmas cheer fund by the Civic Charities bureau. It said: "All the money collected will be used in purchasing gifts and the actual distribution will be conducted by the ladies’ organizations connected with the association."
To help raise money, the ladies’ auxiliary of the Imperial Veterans decided to organize weekly Saturday dances in the Independent Order of Odd Fellows hall on McMillan Avenue.
Through the first few years of the fund’s existence, the local churches, which were also helping war widows and orphans through their own cheer boards, decided to fold their help into it.
By 1936, the Christmas Cheer Board was a committee of the Central Council of Social Agencies, and both the Free Press and Winnipeg Tribune were helping raise money for it.
A Free Press story at the time talked about a father, mother, and two boys, aged five and three, who needed help at Christmas.
"Through no fault of his own, the husband lost his job some time ago, and has never been able to locate another. The mother needs special care and electric treatments... The family is badly up against it. The boys need underwear, stockings, pants, mitts, moccasins, the father needs trousers and warm underwear, also some socks. A dress, a sweater and shoes are badly need by the mother," the article says.
"These things will be supplied to them before Christmas time, so it has been arranged, but there are hundreds of other families to help."
A financial report shows the Free Press Christmas Cheer Fund raised $8,357.06 in 1937, and was split almost equally between the Central Council of Social Agencies (to help Winnipeggers) and the Canadian Red Cross Society (to help rural residents).
The money allowed the Central Council to buy more than 2,000 Christmas puddings and joints of meat to put in hampers sent out along with about $1,400 worth of purchased gifts. Money to the Red Cross helped it buy more than 2,000 moccasins, 1,800 mitts, more than 2,000 pairs of underwear, and 481 bloomers. The report said there were 3,122 children and 1,600 adults helped in rural areas that year.
In 1942, the Christmas Cheer Fund of Greater Winnipeg was created to carry on the work of both the former Free Press Christmas Cheer Fund and the Tribune Empty Stocking Fund, and it was sponsored by the Council of Social Agencies of Winnipeg.
For many years, the Cheer Board has been as transient as many of the people it helps. For years, it was located at McLean House in the North End, but in the last three decades, it has bounced around to temporary annual headquarters in former retail stores.
It’s tough because, unlike other helping agencies which are year-round, the Cheer Board pitches its tent at the beginning of November and closes its doors just days after Christmas.
This year, for a second year in a row, the Cheer Board has a home at 947 St. James St. (a former Staples office retail store in the Polo Park shopping area).
Madsen said when you’re filling 17,000 hampers of food, tossing in thousands of toys and knitted tuques and mitts, and having thousands of people come and pick them up, you need a large space. You also need space for a total of 1,000 school children to pack the hampers, 300 warehouse volunteers, and about 2,500 volunteer drivers to pick up the hampers for delivery.
Grayston said people have to reapply each year for a hamper because — true to an annual temporary operation — it does not a set list of the people to help year to year.
This year, a hamper for one person, which includes a 2.5-kilogram chicken, costs about $86 to put together; a family of two to three, which has a three- to five-kg turkey with it, $126; up to $226 for a hamper with a seven- to nine-kg turkey.
Besides the frozen bird, most hampers also include necessary items (canned vegetables and fruit, tuna, peanut butter, and pasta).
Madsen said with a chuckle he is responsible for the addition a few years ago of pancake mix and syrup, so people can have something warm for breakfast.
"I like pancakes and syrup in the morning and I said, ‘Why can’t they be in it?’" he said.
"The hampers shouldn’t just be for the one or two hours of Christmas dinner. It should be for the day after, too."
Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press.
Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.
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