Distributing Christmas Cheer

By Tanja Bueltmann and Don MacRaild

Benevolence was at the heart of the activities of St George’s societies in both the United States and Canada. Typically, the founding statutes of Philadelphia’s Society of the Sons of St George declared that it existed ‘for the ADVICE and ASSISTANCE of ENGLISHMEN in DISTRESS’. More than a century later, the New York St George’s Society stressed similar principles, with the added espousal of sociability. The society ‘arose from the congenial feelings of some native English settled here, who felt, that though this was to be their permanent residence, they could not restrain the gratifying recollections of their native land, or be unmindful of the condition of any who might resort to their vicinity in a state of indigence or distress’. Through such efforts, the English became successful in accumulating ‘endowments and annually dispensed several thousand dollars among hundreds of persons’. Charity remained a constant throughout, but it was with mass migration in the nineteenth century that it became a more persistent issue and English associations in North America began offering practical support for immigrants.

St. Georges Society, group preparing baskets, Toronto Globe and Mail, 23 December 1928

One particular activity pursued by a number of English clubs and societies was the dispensation of ‘Christmas cheer’. The offering of such seasonal offerings to the English poor was a common pursuit of the  Toronto St George’s Society. In 1859, for instance, members made a ‘gratuitous distribution of meat, bread, potatoes, and wood on the day before Christmas’, thereby carrying ‘warmth and gladness to many a darkened home’. In 1884, goods were distributed from a store on Yonge Street. First was a little boy who carried a basket bigger than himself to take home as many goods as possible. ‘Beaming with smiles at the prospect of the feast in store for him’, the boy left the store. Goods were available for those who had been given tickets by the St George’s Society, with these being handed out on the recommendation of clergymen or Society members. During the 1884 ‘Christmas cheer’ distribution, a total of 750 families received goods, which, in total, were comprised of 8,000 lbs. of beef, 1,200 loaves of bread, 750 lbs. of sugar, and 175 lbs. of tea. These goods, as the Toronto Daily Mail concluded, made many ‘homes in Toronto happier, brighter and merrier today.’

It is in this spirit of dispensing ‘Christmas cheer’ that we wish you a merry Christmas and all the best for 2014 – our final project year!

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