It started in Toronto on a bleak, black, bitingly cold December afternoon. I had just returned to Canada from a trip to Finland where a strong social safety net meant that no one ever went hungry or homeless.
So intense was the contrast between humane Finland and the shivering panhandlers huddled in Bloor Street's snowy doorways that by the time I walked down the path toward home, I was in tears. If only I could do something – anything. And that's when the inspiration for our annual Christmas Hamper Making Party – the best Christmas party in Canada, bar none – came to me.
When you're invited to a typical holiday party, you bring a bottle of wine and something for the potluck, maybe even flowers. For the same money, you could buy a frozen turkey. And if other friends brought veggies or fruit and so on, we could have fun stuffing and decorating food hampers for families in need, allowing them the dignity of a holiday meal in the privacy of their own homes.
The party would be a combination open house and old-fashioned work party, like a quilting bee or barn raising. We wouldn't be competing with other charities because guests would already expect to spend money when going to a party. We'd provide refreshments for our "workers" so they could put all their resources into items for the hampers. Good items, too – no Kraft Dinner or tinned food. And thus, with that first year's 24 hampers, a grand holiday tradition was born.
That was 16 years ago and I've since moved to Victoria, but our Christmas hamper party is still going strong. My husband, Peter Such, and I now host a massive operation with a Cecil B. DeMille-sized cast of generous friends and neighbours and folks I only know because someone brought them to a previous party and now they're hooked.
Last year, we managed to put together an astounding 131 hampers for the Salvation Army. Each contained a frozen turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing mix, carrots, onions, potatoes, fresh green vegetables, fresh fruit, milk, eggs, butter, bread, coffee, tea, dessert and treats such as chocolates, candles, Christmas crackers, nuts, jams or herbs.
As the party has grown we've honed our system into what one awestruck newcomer described as "controlled chaos and amazingly efficient." Well in advance, arrangements have been made for the Salvation Army to pick up the hampers at the end of the party and distribute them to families on their list. Invitations have gone out with a list of what items we need for the hampers, and guests have indicated what they'll be bringing.
By party day our empty plastic laundry hampers are stacked head-high and donations that have come in early are lined up under signs indicating what should be piled where. On the hamper-making table, scissors, ribbons, pipe cleaners and plastic bags are laid out, along with pencils and tags to indicate the weight of the bird inside each hamper. Because people arrive throughout the day with their goodies, a checklist stays in each hamper until we know it contains all the items on the list. Finished hampers are topped with bows, fresh holly clippings or pine boughs, slipped into clear plastic bags and put outside to stay cold.
People drop in all afternoon. Some just drop off donations, others work a bit and hang out by the eggnog and cookies, while others work determinedly for the six hours it takes us to process thousands of pounds of fresh food. "Trainer elves" in bright elf hats preside over greeting, warehousing, hamper packing and recycling operations. Whenever a newcomer wonders, "What should I do?" we tell them, "Ask an elf." When a trainer elf leaves, they hand their hat on to one of their trainees.
Everyone works: Burly teenagers haul turkeys and burlap sacks of farm veggies, little kids carefully count carrots and grannies chat as they bag chocolates or tie candles with ribbons. We're all united in a common cause and, because our 10-turkey donor and our loaf-of-bread donor's contributions all disappear into an anonymous common haul, everyone's equal.
As the day progresses, we send any cash contributions out with runners to buy items we're short of. Excitement mounts as the filled hampers pile up. Someone yells out the count: "We hit 100!" Toward the end of the day a few angels phone: They're going to shop for us – what last-minute things do we need? They arrive to cheers, and everyone scrambles to get the last hampers packed.
At 6 p.m., Salvation Army workers arrive to share mulled punch and cookies with us. Then we all pile outside to heave the bulging hampers down the line to the waiting moving truck.
You can't imagine the visceral thrill as you watch massive piles of fragrant mandarins and loaves of fresh bread, emerald Brussels sprouts and cartons of eggs get divvied up into a sea of hampers now stretching across the lawn and down the hill to the street.
I think one of our neighbours put it best when he e-mailed us the morning after last year's party: "I woke up this morning with the thought that if I had only one day to live, participating in [the]hamper factory would be on the list. To see that many people co-operating, having fun, while making a big difference to 131 families.… Yup.… That is worthy."
Like I said – the best Christmas party in Canada, bar none.
Joyce Kline lives in Victoria.