Red Deer Firefighters preparing toys for their annual Christmas charity drive. (forerunner of the Christmas Bureau) in 1961. Photo taken in the old Red Deer Fire Hall on Ross Street. (Photo via Red Deer Archives)

Red Deer Firefighters preparing toys for their annual Christmas charity drive. (forerunner of the Christmas Bureau) in 1961. Photo taken in the old Red Deer Fire Hall on Ross Street. (Photo via Red Deer Archives)

Michael Dawe: Giving back during holidays

Christmastime is a very special time of year when generosity and goodwill, particularly for the less fortunate, is widespread. One of the oldest continuous volunteer Christmas charities in our community is the Red Deer Christmas Bureau, which was organized 60 years ago in 1961.

The origins of such an organization go back 100 years to the grim years following the First World War. Not surprisingly, the first campaigns were organized to provide Christmas gifts for children of veterans.

In 1923, Boy Scout troops across Canada began the collection, refurbishment and distribution of used toys for distribution to needy children, particularly those from new immigrant families. The Soldiers Settlement Board also provided names for needy veteran’s families who had taken up farms through the S.S.B.

Meanwhile, also in 1923, the newly-formed Rotary Club of Red Deer began collecting used toys and clothing for distribution at Christmas. In 1924, the new Red Deer Welfare Board, made up of representatives of charitable groups including the Salvation Army as well as service clubs and lodges such as Rotary and the Elks, agreed to help coordinate the collection of toys and hampers and the distribution of the Christmas gifts for the needy.

In 1926, the Red Deer Boy Scouts joined in the collecting and distribution of gifts to the needy. The next year (1927) a local Boy Scout Toy Repair Shop was created to repair and refurbish used toys. The Salvation Army and S.T.O (Service to Others social welfare group) helped gather names of worthy recipients. The local Rotary Club, along with other service clubs and charities, helped with the collecting of toys and contributed funds for the Toy Shop.

The value of this annual Christmas charity was clearly shown in 1929. Following a poor harvest and the crash of the world’s stock markets, the demands on the Scout Toy Repair Shop soared. Unfortunately, it was not a “one-off” year. The Great Depression set in. By the mid-1930s, more than 700 toys were collected and distributed to 430 children in 107 families. At the time, Red Deer had a population of 2,800 with approximately another 2,000 in the surrounding rural districts.

A major boost came in 1932 when the local Crescent movie theatre began holding special “kiddies” matinees. Admission was a used or new toy which was then turned over to the Scouts. If people wanted to give cash, children were charged 10¢ and adults 25¢. All cash collected was used to defray the expenses of the Toy Shop as the theatre owner, P.W. Johnston, refused any renumeration for his generous support.

The local Eaton’s store also began donating boxes of damaged toys from its Toyland. The contributions of the Girl Guides in repairing and packaging the toys was formally recognized in 1934 when the operation was renamed the Scout and Girl Guide Toy Shop.

After a more than a decade of heavy demand during the Depression and the start of the Second World War, the Toy Shop initiative began to flag. There is no mention of the Shop in the local media after 1941. The local Lions Club then became a leader with its annual Christmas Hamper Fund for the distribution of toys and special holiday food each year.

In 1950, an Inter-Club Council, consisting of the Legion, Elks Lodge, Rotary and Kinsmen Clubs and others, was created to help coordinate Christmas hampers and toys for the needy. The Lions continued its annual Christmas Hamper Fund. In 1952, the Lions Club began large bingo games at the Memorial Centre to raise more funds for its Christmas giving. The Salvation Army and the new City of Red Deer Welfare Department gathered names for the Christmas charities.

In 1957, following the example of fire departments in larger Alberta cities, the Red Deer Firefighters began to collect and refurbish toys in its own Christmas toy repair shop. It proved such a huge success that almost the entire basement level of the Fire Hall was used for the repair work.

With Red Deer growing very rapidly in the mid to late 1950s, the escalating demands on the annual Christmas charities and the need to coordinate the various efforts, discussions began on the best way to provide city-wide organization and cooperation.

(To be continued)

Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears Wednesdays.