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Christmas meals for the needy
Dec 19, 2013

 

Manitobans are traditionally generous to the less fortunate. Need proof? Well, a recent report by the Fraser Institution puts Manitobans on the top of national generosity list. According to the Fraser Institute, 25.9 per cent of Manitobans reported a tax-deductible contribution to charity in 2011, while the Canada-wide rate was 22.9 per cent. In addition, Manitoba ranked first among provinces and territories for the percentage of total income donated to charity at 0.89 per cent, compared to 0.64 per cent across the nation.
Manitobans are particularly giving at Christmas time, recognizing the need for holiday cheer for everyone. In Winnipeg, annual donations of food and money flow into the Christmas Cheer Board. This year, the Christmas Cheer Board wants to help over 50,000 of the city’s less fortunate through the gathering of 18,000 hampers. Each Christmas, hundreds of groups and businesses across the city contribute to hampers of food and toys on behalf of the board, which are then presented to needy families.
Others donate their time to helping sort hampers for the Christmas Cheer Board or by preparing and serving meals to people in need at Siloam Mission on Christmas Eve and the Salvation Army, which hosts a pre-Christmas meal for the homeless. Christmas meals are a tradition with a long history in Winnipeg. In fact, serving meals to the less fortunate at Christmas time has been around for decades. One hundred years ago, the headline in the Winnipeg Tribune on December 26 was, Thousands Enjoy Christmas Cheer: Estimated That 10,000 Free Dinners were Supplied by Public Philanthropy.
“Christmas 1913 has turned into history ...,” continued the article below the headline. “The feature of the day’s display of public hospitality was at the Salvation Army’s citadel. A Motley throng was served including representatives of the many nationalities that are embraced in the population of the city. The arrangements for the catering for the big crowd was carried out under the direction of Major McLean, who had a large band of workers who seemed to have the acme of happiness in doing good. Dinner was served from eleven o’clock at three long tables ... The last meal was served at three o’clock. All the time the band in an upper room supplied a concert, a most enjoyable adjunct to the feast.”
According to Staff Captain Peacock, the feast was made possible by the “generosity of the Winnipeg public.”
As is the case today: “Large contributions were made to the (Salvation Army) pots (kettles)” along public thoroughfares.
“Donations were made at many of the big firms in the city ...”
At the citadel, six men carved “beautifully browned turkeys” (Manitoba Free Press, December 26, 1913).
Besides turkey, dressing and cranberry sauce, plates were heaped with roast beef, turnips and potatoes, as well as bread and butter. At the end of the hall was the dessert table, where barrels of apples quickly disappeared, and “hundreds of pies followed their natural course ... Each polished apple and each piece of pie helped to make some heart glad.” 
The need of those eating at such a feast was quite evident, as was the excitement of having a solid meal for what may have been the first time in days, even weeks or more.
What is amazing about the Christmas meal 100 years ago is how familiar the scenes would be if one was attending a similar feast today.
When places were ready, people entered the dining room and sat at the tables in an orderly fashion. “Up and down the long aisles the volunteer waiters worked. There was no confusion. The appetizing aroma of roasting turkey caused many mouths to water and their anticipations were quickly realized ... As fast as one dinner was over another was started, the tables being respread for the newcomers ...
“Holding a plate of mince pie in one hand and with the five small fingers of the other tightly clutched around a turkey leg,” reported the Press, “one small golden-haired girl tried to appease her hunger by eating both at the same time at the Christmas dinner supplied by the Salvation Army yesterday (Christmas Day.” 
An Englishman, who had seen better days, as shown by his threadbare clothes and gaunt face, was seen “to make a motion as though loosening his belt another hole. Rapidly he ate at first and then more slowly as each additional hole was let out. His eyes brightened and even a smile crept over his shrunken features as he gazed up and down the long table.”
When this man attempted to rise from the table, he feinted due to stomach being filled for the first time in a long while.
“‘Gie dis is de real ting,’ said one small boy to the smiling sister who was taking care of his wants.” The Salvation Army sisters wore white aprons. Written across the front of the aprons in large letters was the motto, “A Merry Christmas.” 
The small boy held no knife or fork. “Conventional methods of eating were too slow. He was tasting his first turkey and he did not want to waste it. Wistfully he looked at his empty plate and the smiling sister.
“‘Would you like some more?’ she asked. He tried to speak but the words failed him and he bobbed his head empathically.”
One very small boy having difficulty with his knife, was helped by Captain Peacock, who “restored his happiness. The boy’s face was wreathed in smiles. It was his first Christmas in Canada, and he was enjoying it immensely. There had been sickness in the family. Money was scarce and there was no prospect of Christmas dinner. The Salvation Army came to their aid and they were all made happy.”
The Free Press reporter wrote that all sorts of people were present — “old and young, weak and strong, some clad in rags and some wearing clothes that had evidently been made by first-class tailors.”
The generosity was not limited to the Salvation Army, as local restaurants also threw their doors open to the needy. At the Garry Cafeteria, 1,500 dinners were given away. C.A. Kemball, who made the rounds of the various private places where Christmas dinners were served, commented that he was impressed by “the special efforts put forth by the waitresses and the chef” at the Garry, who “all expressed their pleasure at being able to serve the poor on Christmas Day.” The manager of the restaurant even turned away paying patrons so that he could feed the poor.
“Little children ate their fill of good things at those places and carried off armloads of toys. In all the hospitals girls and boys in white cots were propped up to receive gifts which delighted their hearts and made them forget their pain for the time being. Waifs and orphans in institutions for their care were similarly treated.”
One thing is evident when comparing Christmases past and present is that generosity is a tradition that has deep roots in the community. 
Merry Christmas and all the best of the season to everyone!