A 25-year Hay River tradition is looking for a new base of operations this year.
Secret Santa, a special holiday initiative to get presents and festive feasts to needy families in town, is now being run out of founder Edna Dow’s house for lack of a better option.
“We’ve been in lots of places over the years,” Dow told The Hub. “But this is the first time I do it from my house.”
In previous years, Dow has filled boxes – between 75 and 90 any given year – in warehouses, churches and even a decommissioned laundromat. Up until this year, space at the Pentecostal Church had been made available, but with a break-in there over the summer and renovations still ongoing, the church was not an option this year.
The lack of a location and Dow’s health prevented her from starting to take in donations and assemble boxes in November as she usually does, restricting the normally six-week program to a meagre three.
“Hay River will always come through,” she said. “No matter how late we start or where we are, this town will always make it happen.”
Dow’s Secret Santa began more than 25 years ago when she was raising seven children in a house in Disneyland. As members of the Pentecostal Church, the Dows would receive baskets of food on their doorstep on Christmas Eve to help the large family through the holidays. One Christmas, after getting several hampers, Dow’s eldest son Vincent decided to start bringing the donations to other families in the neighbourhood and then further afield. He packed up a toboggan and trundled out the door with boxes of food and presents, and Hay River’s Secret Santa initiative was born.
“When the doorbell rang and we knew there was yet another box of stuff for us on the doorstep, I told Vincent, ‘This is too much,'” said Dow. “He said he would rather give it away to others who needed it.”
Years later, the tradition has grown. Beginning in late November, people start calling and leaving names of families with children they believe are in need. The names are confidential – only Dow herself knows them. Toys and presents are then sorted by age and gender, wrapped and put into boxes. Each family gets enough toys for all the children and sometimes even some for adults, if any appropriate gifts have been donated. Along with presents, the boxes contain all the fixings for holiday meals for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, including a turkey. If cash is donated, Dow turns it into gift certificates for the various grocers in town.
With only three weeks left before Christmas Eve, Dow said she has faith in Hay River to rise to the challenge, adding she knows people who buy toys when they go on vacation in Southern Canada in the summer months specifically for Secret Santa.
“I know the gifts and food items will come in,” she said. “People love to help out.”
When the boxes are all ready, Dow enlists a crew of dedicated volunteers to deliver them before Christmas Eve. A long-time member of that crew, Dow’s daughter Tatelena Dow, said she doesn’t think people realize the lengths to which her mother goes to make Secret Santa happen every year.
“She can’t help but be generous,” she said. “It will be 6 p.m. on Christmas Day, the phone will ring and it’s someone asking for a hamper, and my mom will go into her own pantry to make one up. That’s just how we were raised.”
Tatelena said Secret Santa was always a part of the family’s Christmas growing up and that she and her siblings were brought up to value generosity and community, especially during the holidays.
“My mom always put everybody before herself,” she said. “Especially at Christmas, and she raised us to do the same.”
But for Edna Dow, generosity is the default course of action. She said it makes her happy to know that less-fortunate children in the community are getting something nice at Christmas. The very first year, when Vincent hauled his toboggan full of food around Disneyland, Dow said the best thing she gave away was real juice. She said her own family had to make a jug of powdered juice last the entire day and knowing that another family and their children would be enjoying thick, pulpy orange juice Christmas morning brought a smile to her face.
In fact, she said, “I still like giving out juice.”