As the Christmas season reaches a peak just as St. John’s completes its 100th anniversary on Humberside, it’s timely to look back into history to highlight how Christmas celebrations, services, and activities at St. John’s have evolved, particularly over the past 40+ years. Awareness of past experience can certainly educate, spark ideas, and also provide inspiration for supporting the future of St. John’s. An important historical resource is the collection of St. John’s newsletters that have been digitized and made available via:
Christmas at St. John’s during the late 1970s through mid-1980s was celebrated quite traditionally with Choral Eucharist services and carol singing, which followed a variety of preparatory activities, such as decorating the church and Sunday School Parties that included a Christmas Pageant and pot-luck parish dinner. There was also the "Christmas Tea and Gift Sale," which by 1986 had become known as “Holly Tea,” featuring knitting, crafts, and baked goods. However, newsletters also highlight tensions between the desire to keep Christ at the centre of Christmas and the growing secularism and commercialization of the Christmas season. Nevertheless, Santa Claus himself was the special guest at St. John’s Annual Christmas Party and Pageant in December 1987.
By the late 1980s and into the 1990s, community outreach grew in importance, driven by a broader mission of inclusion and a pragmatic need to attract more people into the church. Christmas activities became more outward looking, linking Holly Tea with a community food drive in partnership with local food banks, such as The Stop 103. There was also “White Gift Sunday” that was part of the Christmas Pageant during which small gifts were collected for children in need for delivery at The Stop on Christmas Eve.
The arrival the especially energetic Rev. Gary van der Meer to lead St. John’s in the fall of 2001 galvanized a variety of new initiatives and re-imagined traditions during the Christmas season over the next decade. In particular, the Christmas Pageant became an inter-generational part of the Christmas service with everyone involved and dressed up, not just kids. Broader community outreach was also behind St. John’s partnership with CBC-Radio, starting in 2003, and its local presentations of “A Christmas Carol,” the proceeds donated to The Stop Community Food Drive. Starting in 2006, St. John’s also partnered with the Bloor West Village Business Improvement Association for Christmas Caroling events in the Village, the BIA donating funds to the church. During this period Holly Tea mixed a community craft sale with a SJWT Café setting in the uniquely colourful main church space, focused on drawing in people from the neighbourhood. Many enjoyed simply hanging out in the church during the Holly Tea event. St. John’s held its first formal Gala during the 2009 Christmas season, the event including live jazz, a cash bar, and a silent auction. Meanwhile, young children and their parents participated in a Messy Christmas Party at the church to celebrate Jesus’ birthday with crafts, games, learning about God, and enjoying a home cooked meal.
A change in leadership at St. John’s in late 2011, from Father Gary to Reverend Samantha Caravan, led to a further evolution of Christmas services and activities during much of the next decade. Some activities lapsed, but then returned, such as Holly Tea, while others continued and were further energized, such as Messy Christmas. There was also more of an emphasis on parish and neighbourhood events that involved food, such as “Food For the Soul” with a focus on soup, company, and community, and offering a traditional Christmas Dinner on December 25. Similar Christmas activities continued through the transition to the leadership of Pastor Dawn Leger in 2019, supplemented by a Queer Eucharist during Advent, and the preparation of Christmas Gift of Love Bags for isolated seniors, the return of Advent choir, and Advent Coffee meet ups to facilitate parishioners getting to know one another.
However, soon after Christmas 2019, the world changed as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold and by Christmas 2020, things were very different at St. John’s. Yet, the St. John’s community was nothing if not resourceful and creative in meeting this unique challenge through online services and organizing a "Virtual Holly Tea & Craft Sale" with considerable success. As the pandemic persisted, by Christmas 2021, with a further leadership change to Mother Alexandra Stone, online services remained, but were improved with better tech equipment and experience. There was also another Virtual Holly Tea & Craft Sale. By Christmas 2022, we were back in the church, but also continuing online and we held a virtual and an in-person Holly Tea event.
Today, as we celebrate Christmas in 2023, St. John’s is a quite a different place at Christmas than it was, especially 15-20 years ago, with an Advent and Christmas calendar then full of services, activities, and community events. We can’t expect to repeat today and tomorrow how Christmas was done then, but we certainly can draw some useful ideas and some inspiration from this rich history, tapping, in particular, into the sentiment printed on t-shirts made during Christmas 2001: “St. John’s. Oh What Fun!”