Reason #80 of '101 Reasons Why I Heart Edmonton'

Christmas in Edmonton

By Emil Tiedemann

My dad would run out into the living room in his pajamas to tell us to turn on the radio to 630 CHED whenever Jerry Forbes was about to come on with his heartwarming Christmas story, And a Creature Was Stirring

Forbes wrote and narrated the piece himself - complete with sound effects like the crunching of snow under our feet and the bellows of excited young children - about a young man with “shoulder-length hair” and “a shaggy beard” who delivers donated gifts to underprivileged families in Edmonton. 

Maisie's Magical Christmas House at 144 Avenue & 97 Street.

The local radio host was inspired to write the story based on experiences from another one of his cherished projects, Santa’s Anonymous, which would provide donated Christmas toys and games to children who were less fortunate. 

“Wouldn’t it be great if there would be no needy kids...and every kid had a present...not a used present...but a brand new present,” Forbes said when a reporter asked him why he started Santa’s Anonymous. “From that modest start we said, ‘well, let’s do it!’ So we went ahead and for the first few years, we ran it up on the second floor [at then 1080 CHED] with my staff and from there it just grew and grew and now it’s part of the overall system of the Christmas Bureau.” 

From only a few hundred children when the program first started in 1955, Santa’s Anonymous has grown exponentially, distributing presents to more than 10,000 homes every December these days. For a few years, my siblings and I were among those children who would receive gifts from strangers totting around large plastic bags full of wrapped toys. My parents made sure we were unaware that we were, at times, underprivileged, ensuring that our Christmas was always special. 

And not just because we always had gifts under the tree, but for so many other reasons: because we would go bobsledding and tubing down the snowy hills in the local ravine; because we got to see Santa Claus at the mall and have our picture taken with him; because we made Christmas crafts at school and at home that we would hang from the tree or on the walls of our apartment; and because occasionally we would drive past the glittering streetways, snowman colonies, and blinking lights of Candy Cane Lane, a beloved holiday tradition that has taken over 148th Street (between 92nd and 100th Avenues) since 1968. 

But there are many other treasured traditions that Edmontonians enjoy every holiday season, from the 35-foot-tall Singing Christmas Tree at the Jubilee Auditorium to the Christmas on the Square Holiday Light Up at Churchill; from the horse drawn wagon rides at Fort Edmonton Park to the sparkling of thousands of hand-lit candles during Luminaria at the Botanic Garden; from the Shaw Conference Centre’s gleaming Festival of Trees fundraiser to the live stage production of Charles DickensA Christmas Carol classic at the Citadel. 

But, there’s nothing more enticing and inherent to a Christmas in Edmonton than sitting at home with your family and friends, a turkey roasting in the oven, snowflakes dropping out of the sky, and Jerry telling us about the kid with the long hair and the sheepskin wrap. If you ask me, it simply doesn’t get any better than that! #yegxmas

A rendering of Jerry Forbes' 'And a Creature Was Stirring,' painted by Edmonton artist Sharon Tiedemann (my mom!).

And a Creature Was Stirring
By Jerry Forbes

His hair was shoulder-length, his youthful face hid behind an abundance of shaggy beard. Over tight faded blue jeans and an old bulky knit, he had thrown his pride and joy, a sheepskin wrap. It had a hole in the center through which he put his head. It was without arms, fell front and back down past his waste to his mid-thigh, and it was gathered at the waist with a chain. His ‘68 Chevy moved slowly through the streets. It stopped, then started again, making a u-turn at the corner where the driver gazed through the darkness of the night to view the street markers. He was in unfamiliar territory. The houses were one-room frame, and most of them were bare of paint. Lights were few and glowed softly behind polythene, which substituted for storm windows. Up one side of the deserted street, down the other, then onto the next block the old Chevy made its way. It stopped and the door opened, and the young man with the long hair, with the beard and the faded jeans and the sheepskin coat got out of the passenger side and walked to the gate of the house that was a duplicate of all those around it. He walked slowly up the walk, trying to see the house numbers through the dark. He read them. Satisfied that this was the place, he returned to his car, opened the trunk and removed two large brown shopping bags, like they use in the supermarkets. He turned to the front door of the old house and knocked gently. No answer. He knocked again, then he heard the sound of children. The door opened and in the brief second, through the dim light inside, he saw poverty at Christmastime. The floor was bare, three little children were playing there with an old cardboard box. The kitchen table was covered with tattered oilcloths and was surrounded by four bare wooden chairs. A double bed sat in one corner, sagging but neatly made, and the small electric stove sat against the wall. A young woman, perhaps in her late twenties, but looking tired and older than her years, came to the door, scooping up the smallest child as she did. The other child who had opened the door looked at the stranger outside, then stepped back glancing quickly at her mother. “Good evening, ma’am, these are gifts for the little ones from Santa’s Anonymous,” the young man said. The mother looked a long moment at the long-haired, bearded youth with an outlandish sheepskin jacket. She took the two shopping bags filled with gaily-wrapped Christmas gifts, she set the baby down on the floor again, and quickly looked at the bright display of parcels. Her eyes welled up with tears and she could bring herself to say only an almost inaudible “Thank you!” “You’re welcome, ma’am,” the youth said as he turned to go, “and have a very merry Christmas.” And then it happened! Just as his foot hit the top step of the old porch, as the door was about to close behind him, a small child’s voice said: “Mommy, was that Jesus?” It hit trip hammer hard and the young man stopped for the briefest moment; his chin dropped to his chest and an almost overwhelming emotion swept through him. He walked slowly out to his ancient car, crawled in behind the wheel, sat there for a moment trying to get a deep breath. He wiped a tear off his bearded cheek and drove off into the night. It hadn’t happened before, it might not ever happen again, but that small child in the small house on Maple Street gave this strange lad in sheepskin coat the most beautiful Christmas gift he had ever received. (Written by the late Jerry Forbes, printed courtesy of 630 CHED). 

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