Toronto's biggest daily newspaper is the Toronto Star. About a century ago the publisher set up a charity in an attempt to insure that all children in the area experience Christmas in the form of gifts. Thus the Toronto Star Santa Claus gift boxes were started. Readers are invited to send in donations and the money thus raised goes towards purchasing warm weather clothing articles (mittens, toques), candy and toys. The Social Service agencies send in a list of families who are needy. For each needy child a box is filled with 'goodies' (the boxes are similar to those that new pairs of shoes come in - but larger), wrapped in seasonal paper and labeled with the name and address and age of the child as well as the name of a parent or guardian.
In 1989 the growing congregation necessitated finding a larger church for MCC Toronto. A real estate agent mentioned that the old Simpson Avenue United Church was on the market. The previous church was well to the east of downtown Toronto while the new location is just east of being central - and is serviced by a number of transit routes.
The fact that a basically 'Gay' church was buying a larger building was news so everybody heard. In the meantime, a small service club that was centered in that neighborhood (and had been a 'depot' for the distribution of Star Christmas boxes) were looking for another group to take over what - for them - had become an onerous task. They telephoned the church and asked if we would be interested?
At that time I was between jobs so I was approached to spearhead the initiative (mainly to find helpers to sort the boxes, prepare logical delivery routes, and to deliver them to various homes).
At that time there were around 200 boxes in total but, now, they total over 2,000. Every year volunteers are found to help sort and then to deliver the boxes to predetermined routes. Instead of merely the Riverdale neighborhood the routes extend to the north and east for quite a distance.
The boxes arrive at the church in a Toronto Star cube van and are piled in one room that is emptied of furniture for that day. Based upon Canada Post Office sorting details, lists of addresses in specific neighborhoods are compiled and the boxes are sorted accordingly.
Sorting the boxes for delivery - all 2,000 of them!
That very first Christmas there was a box addressed to a young girl who lived a block away so I decided to deliver that box myself. I went to the door and it was the girl who answered my knock. In my hands was the nicely decorated large shoe box. The mother of the girl was behind her so I explained to her who I was and what was the occasion. The woman did not speak English so the girl translated and I could tell by her body language that she was afraid that her mother would decline the gift.
Not so - the box was accepted and the girl (who was 8 years old) was so obviously relieved.
An East Indian family lived a block from the church and I delivered boxes to them. Trying to be 'politically correct' I wished the Dad "Happy Holidays" and the gentleman humbly corrected me, "No, Sir! Merry Christmas!"
A number of boxes are returned as 'undeliverable' and it was my task to try to track down the addressee. One of the boxes was addressed to a three year old boy who lived with his Mom. I knew that the address was to a City Social Housing building and that, in all probability, the woman was keeping her whereabouts as secret as she could. I took the box over there one evening and buzzed the building manager. I told him who I was and the nature of my errand. As I expected that he would, he gave me the unit number.
I went up there and knocked. A woman's voice asked, "Who is it?" so I identified myself and the nature of my errand. Upon that she opened the door. Looking at the label on the box, I asked her if she was Mrs. M.? She nodded so I looked at the little guy standing beside her and said, "Then you must be Joshua?" "Uh huh" was the response so I said, "Then this is for you!" His Mom did the usual Mom thing and said, "Careful you don't drop it!"
I wished her a Merry Christmas and left. As I closed the door behind me I heard Joshua with the last words, "Oh Wow!!!" That made my day!
What I look like while in costume.
A year or so later I was out with a lady from the congregation - she was driving and I was delivering. It was a weird evening - snow was falling thickly and there was a thunderstorm up above. The address on the boxes were for a boy and girl who lived in a house. When I located the address and walked up to the door I was able to look through the window in the upper panel and saw a staircase leading up to a second floor. In response to my knock a boy and a girl appeared at the top of the stairs. They could see me in my red cap with white trim and my bushy beard so the boy screamed, "SANTA!!!". I could tell by the name that this - in all probability - was a Muslim family. Thank goodness they had not been skipped because 'Santa' was not a part of their culture.
One last 'anecdote'. I was doing another 'call back' to a house where there seemed to be a number of people residing. The name of the mother and child on the label indicated to me that they were from Eastern Europe. The boy was about 12 years old - 13 is the cut off age for Star boxes - and, when I gave him the box, the mother said (in heavily accented English). "Go ahead - open it!" There were still a number of days before Christmas but the boy was not expected to wait!