COLUMN: Taste of Christmases past

Embrace the season by giving to charitable organizations

Christmas is a time of giving, and there are few places in the world where it is easier to give than in North America.

Despite a host of challenges, some big and some infinitesimally small, most people here are blessed with enough to eat, a place to live and access to services that do not exist in many other parts of the world.

Surrey, Delta and White Rock are no exception to that, although there are definitely needy people among us.

At this time of year – and indeed all year – it is very worthwhile to give to those in need and to organizations which do their best to ensure that everyone is taken care of.

To name just a few of those organizations, there are the Surrey Food Bank, Surrey Christmas Bureau, Deltassist, Sources (formerly Peace Arch Community Services) and the Salvation Army. There are many, many others.

We have it pretty good in this corner of the world as Christmas 2012 approaches. But it wasn’t all that long ago when many Surrey residents were not very well off – at least in material possessions. They usually had enough to eat, but cash was a real scarcity.

The time I refer to was the 1930s, what many people who grew up in that era call the “Hungry ’30s.”

My father grew up then in South Surrey, and he and his contemporaries still remember it well.

One well-known Surrey resident who also remembers the 1930s is retired fire chief Al Cleaver. He spent the early years of his life in East Vancouver before his family came out to Newton, to a five-acre property at 72 Avenue and 124 Street. They moved here about 1937.

He recalled a wonderful Christmas story of the 1930s for me last week that I would like to share with readers, with his permission.

His family didn’t have much money as Christmas approached. There would be few signs of Christmas in their home in Vancouver.

However, they did dearly want to have a turkey to cook for Christmas dinner.

But coming up with the cash was almost impossible. So every member of the family poked throughout the house to find any spare pennies, nickels and dimes. They did find a few of them, but not too many.

Al was then sent down to Piggly Wiggly, a well-known grocery firm which eventually became Safeway, to see if he could get a turkey.

He put his collection of coins on the counter and asked if it was enough to buy a turkey for Christmas dinner. The butcher looked at him, long and hard, and then went into a cooler.

He emerged with a scrawny little turkey. But it was still the real thing.

Al proudly took it home and, he told me, “Never did any turkey I’ve eaten taste as good as that one.”

After his family moved to Surrey, they were able to grow a good portion of their food, and cash for food became less of an issue. There was always lots of fruit, and most people raised their own animals for meat, eggs and milk. Most people grew big gardens in the summer months, and it was often quite easy to catch fish in the rivers.

Cash continued to be a problem for many Surrey families throughout the 1930s. Work was scarce, and many were on relief, the municipal assistance for families with no income.

Many single men lived in relief camps, including one in South Surrey, and were paid a small sum for manual labour. That’s how the King George Highway project was started.

There was no Employment Insurance, no pensions for retired people and no health insurance. Surrey’s lone doctor, F.D. Sinclair, treated many patients without any hope of payment.

But at the same time, people were very grateful for small things – like scrawny turkeys.

It’s a good thing to think about as we are embrace the season of giving.

Frank Bucholtz writes Thursdays for the Peace Arch News. He is the editor of the Langley Times.