It was tradition. Every Christmas season for the past umpteen years (umpteen meaning now about twelve) we have helped out with the Manchester Salvation Army’s Christmas Toy Shop. Eligible families registered in September and October for the opportunity to “shop” for gifts for their children which happens the week before Christmas. The Radisson Expo Center in Manchester set aside the time frame needed for this event which turned out to be more than one day.
THE SETUP: The setup had to happen in the days prior to the actual shopping day. This required a dedicated crew (or ones cajoled into being major schleppers) for the first big task. The day, as always, began bright and early at the Expo Center with camaraderie, jokes and good natured ribbing to the extreme. Everyone was here for the right reason. The first step was to drive the waiting truck to the building located near the Salvation Army and load previously stored toys, games, and other items from a large storage area into the truck. Then back to the loading dock at the hotel the truck was met by many hands waiting to help unload the packages onto the multitude of carts big and small. Back and forth like clockwork, the items were wheeled to a central area to begin the creation of the Toy Shop. The pile grew as box after box was dumped or gingerly placed on the floor. Another group did not hesitate and started to separate these items into age groups. Meanwhile on the other side of the huge conference room long tables were set up and adorned with festive green table cloths. Signs were posted on the glass and support posts around the room which designated the age groups in numerical order. Since it just so happened that setup this year fell on Saturday, there were more people to help out. Many were young people from here, there and everywhere. And let me tell you, these guys and gals were on the ball. They knew the mission and didn’t hesitate to put in the effort. It was nice to see that the old people (like me) didn’t have to struggle with doing everything themselves, thank you very much.
Over the next few hours the huge growing pile was sorted into the appropriate age groups and placed on pallets. Lifts were then used to move them to the prepared table areas. Volunteers at each table had their own style of order and where they wanted certain toys to be placed. Some created walls with the multitude of boxes to have better control of some of the most sought after items and to make it easier to manage. Once the doors opened on the day of the Toy Shop you had to have your wits about you. Organization came in the form of a predesignated time assigned to each client to shop. It made for a better flow for everyone and to make the day go smooth.
And it was a full day as everyone broke for a lunch of pizza, drinks and other goodies. Over the years the best hoped for sighting on setup day has been the same faces in the crowd. It’s tradition. On game day Shaun and his daughter were at the 5-7 (and most popular) age group. 8-10 had the top shelf elf, Dan, in charge along with his daughter and his good pal Frenchy. Paul and Steve always take care of 11-12 preteens which was always a challenge. 0-2 and 2-4 had Glenn as the go to guy along with a revolving group of young ladies (who were the ones really in charge). For over 20 years strong Yvonne continues to do her thing throughout the day and Hannah is the shining light filling in everywhere and helping to keep it all together. Her dad was a fixture and had his own shtick and we all miss him big time. Mary goes wherever needed and is always a quiet spark of good humor. Of course Bob is the Master of Ceremonies and does all the coordinating on and off the playing field. The captains Herb and Miriam Rader are part all of it even as their schedules collide with a multitude of other things during a busy time for the Salvation Army in Manchester.
THE TOY SHOP: The day began bright, cold and sunny. The volunteers young and old began to trickle in. Among them were the current pageant winners from across the state. The young ladies wearing their crowns and sashes had always been a part of the day. Before the doors opened everyone gathered together a prayer was offered, and the true Christmas season of giving had begun. 9 o’clock arrived and the first shoppers were here to start the party. A line of volunteers continued throughout the day to be shopping helpers as they were paired with a client to assist them throughout the process and escorting them to the final checkout table. Channel 9 News has always highlighted the Toy Shop at some point during the day. Some New Hampshire businesses used the time as part of their company’s campaign of ‘giving back’ or ‘paying it forward’ allowing their employees to volunteer. There was a steady hum in the air as time went by. Lunch was served and everyone mingled in the festiveness of the day.
The boys at their respective tables worked the business angle with each other throughout the day. When certain items became scarce or were not attracting shoppers, moving them to another table and age group turned out to be one solution. They all took their job with seriousness but throughout the day the fun was evident all around.
It was now past 4 o’clock and last group of shopping clients were finishing up making their selections and checking out. Afterwards, tallies were made; items noted as to popularity, scarcity or what evidently were just plain old duds. It helped with the planning for next year as always. Boxes were repacked with ages noted. Tables were taken down, chairs stacked and slowly the room was put back into proper order. The truck was packed up and driven back to the storage building to be unloaded. Volunteers slowly left with the Toy Shop officially closed. Hugs and good wishes were passed around by the regulars who have become friends along the way. Steve had left with the gang to retrace the route back and to unload the truck.
Wielding a large broom, I crisscrossed the now empty conference room sweeping up remains of the day. It was quiet now as moved across the large area. Many happy parents had left with a part of the Christmas spirit for their children in the form of gifts. One would never know how dynamic and full of life the room had been just a short while ago. The lights suddenly dimmed which was my cue to stop. We had one last goodbye with Bob and left with a shout out of best wishes and plans to get together soon.
It is the most wonderful time of the year.
FYI – The Twelve Days of Christmas is probably the most misunderstood part of the church year among Christians who are not part of liturgical church traditions. Contrary to much popular belief, these are not the twelve days before Christmas, but in most of the Western Church are the twelve days from Christmas until the beginning of Epiphany (January 6th; the 12 days count from December 25th until January 5th). The Epiphany is the moment of belief when the Magi (the three kings) following the star, arrived at the birthplace of Jesus. Some consider that Christmas begins on the evening of December 25th with the following day considered the First Day of Christmas (December 26th). In these traditions, the twelve days begin December 26 and include Epiphany on January 6.
Twelfth Night often included feasting along with the removal of Christmas decorations. Many European celebrations of Twelfth Night included a King’s Cake, remembering the visit of the Three Magi, and ale or wine (a King’s Cake is part of the observance of Mardi Gras in French Catholic culture of the Southern USA).
Everyone celebrates this time of year in many different ways. All are interesting, fascinating, and contain timeless traditions for most families where eat, drink and be merry is the theme.
Lest we forget, the real reason for the season shall forever be the powerful spirit of one tiny babe born to Mary a long time ago in Bethlehem.
Happy New Year!