Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Canadian Tire Money Toy Drive

I've just had the most amazing time!!! Every year for the last five years, I've organized a toy drive in Toronto. Yesterday was shopping day, and today was distribution day.

For my American friends, let me tell you about Canadian Tire. This store is a Canadian institution. It's kind of like Home Depot, minus the lumber, plus home and automotive. When you make a purchase at Canadian Tire, you receive special coupons called CANADIAN TIRE MONEY. This "money" looks sort of like Monopoly money, and is about 5% of your purchase. You can use this "money" in any Canadian Tire store towards any purchase. Lots of people shop at Canadian Tire, and pretty much everyone has some Canadian Tire Money in their wallet. At Christmas, Canadian Tire has a huge toy section. And that's where I come in...

Each year, I collect Canadian Tire Money, I bring it to the store, they match my collection, and I buy toys for needy children.

So, today was the final day of it all. I wanted to share the day with everyone, so here's the letter I sent out to my mailing list today. And I have to tell you, it's a pretty awesome way to spend the days before Christmas:

Hi all,

I have just had the most exciting two days as we've wrapped up this year's Canadian Tire Money Toy Drive. Here are the final results:

Our collection of Canadian Tire Money was ... $1202.95 !!!!!!

Canadian Tire matched our donation penny for penny, for over $2400.00 in toys!

In addition, Mastermind Toys also gave a donation of toys. And, St. John's York Mills Church gave me the toys donated to their mitten tree to distribute.

In total, over 300 toys were distributed today!!!!!

This is so much more than I expected! Some of the toys were brought to Robertson House, a shelter for women and children in downtown Toronto. Last month, I received the shopping list for their 100 children. Yesterday, we brought that list to Canadian Tire and bought a toy for each child. Each toy was valued at $20.00-$30.00, and encouraged sharing and creative play.

After filling the list, we still had more toys! I was directed to Oolagan Community Services, a group that provides free mental health services for children and their families. They received a car-load of toys for their children as well.

Both agencies will give the toys directly to the mothers. This way, the moms can retain the independence of giving the toys themselves, or letting Santa put the toys under the tree.

I am so amazed at the collection of Canadian Tire Money. $1202.95 in 5 and 10 cent pieces. Over 3900 pieces were collected!

Thank you to the Canadian Tire at Sheppard and Leslie for matching our donation! This the fifth year of our toy drive, and they have matched our donation every year. If you need a Canadian Tire, please consider supporting this one.

Thank you to Mastermind Toys for giving us two huge boxes of toys! Your contribution was wonderful. If you are looking for great toys any time of year, please consider purchasing them at any Mastermind location.

Thank you to Bert Chandler for collecting Canadian Tire Money through St. Patrick's Anglican Church.

Thank you to Anne Rawson for organizing a collection of Canadian Tire Money through the Fairlawn Neighbourhood Centre.

Thank you to the staff and parishioners of St. John's York Mills Church for their continued support of this toy drive.

Thank you to everyone who mailed in a donation of Canadian Tire Money. Whether it was 5 cents or 5 dollars, it all added up!

Thank you to Hollis, Helen, Gerald, Don, and Bobbi for purchasing and transporting the toys.

And a few final thoughts:

The first year of this toy drive, we bought 11 toys, and I was amazed. I can't believe how much this has grown! It is truly an example of everyone giving a little to make a great change.

We have already started next year's collection! Canadian Tire Money can be mailed any time of year to the address below.

If you are interested in collecting Canadian Tire Money for our toy drive, please just email me and let me know! Whether it's your school, office, or church, we'd love to add your Canadian Tire Money to our collection.

This Sunday, when you're opening your gifts and sharing time with your family, please take a minute and know that, thanks to your contributions, hundreds of children are having a great Christmas!

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Allison Lynn

Allison Lynn - Toy Drive
c/o St. John's York Mills Church
19 Don Ridge Dr.
North York, ON
M5B 2C2

Monday, December 19, 2005

A Very Raptors Christmas

It's been a long day and I'm exhausted. I'm about to have a cup of tea and watch the best Christmas special ever: A Charlie Brown Christmas. But first, I want to share my day...

This morning was the best gig I get all year. My Victorian Christmas Carollers sang at the Toronto Raptors' Christmas game at the Air Canada Centre. They always pull out all the stops for this game with lots of singers and dancers and stuff. For the last five years, I've been part of the entertainment, and for the last two years, it's been with my own quartet. Leo, Monika, Gerald, and I spent all yesterday afternoon practicing our favourite carols in four-part-harmony. We did some very traditional arrangements, like Silent Night and Good King W. And then we switched things up a little on some carols and threw in some descants. For these, the men would jump on the tune so I could wail on the top. My favourite are the funky carols we've arranged ourselves. We did our version of Joy to the World, that we've nicknamed "Funky Joy". We also worked out an arrangement of Blue Christmas with Gerald on a very Elvisy lead part.

We sang in the hour before the game. They always set up "Santa-Raptor" and some of the Dance Pack for photos in the Galleria, which is their gianormous lobby. {Um, yes I do believe 'gianormous' is a word!} They had us positioned near them, so it was a great location, but they used up the mics on some of the other performers, so we had no mics! Thousands of people walking past, and only the nearest could hear us! A little frustrating, but what can you do? We just sang our best and tried not to compete with the noise of the fans. The people who could hear us, loved us.

After our singing, they gave us seats for the game. This year, we sat up in the media gondolas. You know when they say "They're going upstairs to see if that's a point"? Well, we were in that very same upstairs! What a great time! They always give us passes to wear so we can wander around the ACC, and tonight, those passes are decorating the Christmas tree! It makes for a great conversation piece.

Tonight was our church's Christmas Carol Service. I love this service. All readings and music. It's always pretty awesome. The combined choirs sang Sussex Carol, and our choir sang an up-tempo number called Come to Bethlehem. Jen played piano, but we all added in maracas, tambourine, and finger cymbals. It was rocking! And people loved it, which is always lovely.

Two years ago, the All Peoples Korean Presbyterian Church started using our church building as their worship space, and tonight their choir joined the service. They sang O Holy Night in Korean. Just beautiful.

It's nice having Christmas on a Sunday. Now that we've reached Advent 4, we still have a whole week to prepare for the big day.

I don't really feel I have much more to say tonight. Linus and Charlie Brown are in the tree lot, and they've just spotted "the tree". Awesome!

Sunday, December 11, 2005

The REAL Christmas Story - outdoor theatre in December!

Tonight was one of those awesome nights we all hope to have in December.

Eight years ago, Dad shared an idea with me. What if we had a theatre in December where people could come and hear about the birth of Christ? Sounds great. But here's the catch: Let's have it outside! People can come and drive their cars through the church grounds and meet the different characters of the Bible!

Sounded crazy!

Our church is blessed with great grounds. It was the first building in the area, and has still held on to a fair amount of property. We have a great church yard and a huge parking lot. Not long after we moved to Toronto, Dad had this vision of creating an outdoor theatre experience on the grounds. And what better story than the Christmas story?

He wrote a script entitled "The REAL Christmas Story - A Walk Through", gave it to me for consideration, and I added in my two cents. (We decided that walking-through would provide a nicer experience than driving-through.) He formed a committee of church members to produce the play in 1998. We were blessed with awesome volunteers, including Warren Hughes, a retired professional costume and set designer. Warren build eight stages throughout the church yard, and graced each stage with a painted backdrop. I was the director for the first three years, and I have performed in the show almost every year since. I felt most honoured when Dad included me as co-writer of the script. I still can't believe we got it off the ground that first year, but we did, and people loved it. In the following two years, we made a few changes to the script, and did some re-organizing of our tech set-up. It is now a well-oiled machine, run completely by volunteers. One year, we even had a team come in and make a documentary of the show. The documentary was released as a video and got played on Vision TV.

So, tonight was our eighth production. For those of you who missed it, let me take you through a little descriptive version of The REAL Christmas Story:

First, you park your car, and join in the line up. You have dressed very warmly because, after all, it is winter in Toronto. Oh, and it's night. We start just as it gets dark. As you stand in line, you are entertained by the singing and impromptu comedy of one of our many tour guides. (I don't think they all sing, but this year, Gerald start doing Christmas carols, and I think he's been asked to do it again next year!) The tour guides are all dressed in "Bethlehem" costumes. They each carry a lantern with a lighted candle inside. You are given a program of the show. If you are lovely, you make a donation to support the production. (Admission is free.) If you're not lovely, you complain about the cold and ask if you can jump the line so that you can make it to your cocktail party before the caviar gets warm. But you are lovely, so on we go...

You and your friends are made into groups of a dozen or so people. You are lead by your tour guide, through the church gate, and to the first stage. Here you will hear the prologue. (I like to call this actor the Prologuer. I've pretty much convinced myself that this is a real word.) This character invites you to travel back through time to experience the REAL Christmas story.

You walk a little, and a light goes up on the next stage. Here you meet the prophet, Isaiah, and his assistant, Zachariah. (Yes, a little creative freedom on the assistant. He likes to be called "Zach".) They tell you of Isaiah's predictions on the coming of Christ.

On the next stage, you meet Jeremiah and his sister, Huldah. (Again, creative freedom. The first year, Huldah was Jeremiah's wife, til we found out that Jeremiah was never married! So, we gave him a sister.) Jeremiah also tells us of his predictions of the coming of Christ.

The next stage is the angels. Warren did something different on this stage - The painted drop is at the front, and it's painted with three glorious angels, but there are holes cut out for the faces. The actors wear blond curly wigs and poke their faces out of the holes. People love it! They are practicing their song for the birth of Christ. They sing "Good Christian Folk (Men) Rejoice". Legend has it that this song was given to us by the angels. I don't know if that's true, but I thought it was a good enough reason to add it in. The angels sing a Gloria Deo, which is my original music contribution to the show. Of course, I haven't seen any royalties yet...

Next, you start to walk to a stage, but you are stopped on the path by a Roman herald. He orders you to return to your home-towns to participate in a census. But oh no! There's a guy running through the crowd! His name is Joseph and he can't travel cause his wife is pregnant. But the herald has no sympathy and tells him he's got to travel. The herald walks off into the night, while Joseph runs off to get his wife. We then see Mary and Joseph on the stage, and they're on their way to Bethlehem. They talk of their angelic visitations, and their fears about the coming days. But most importantly, they talk about their trust in God. As Mary's baby has a little kick, you leave them to meet...

Three confused dudes wandering around in the snow. They are dressed in great robes, and seem lost. In our play, the "wise men" are called Astrologers to emphasize their knowledge of the celestial world. They tell you about their visit to Herod, and how he was kind to them, yet there's something about him they just don't trust. They show you the gifts they have for the new king. Then, they spot the star! It's just over Bethlehem, they leave the stage and we follow them to...

The shepherds. The lowest of the low. Sitting on a hillside where nothing ever happens. Suddenly, an angel - well, a puppet-angel - pops out above the painted drop to announce the coming of the new king. (And the angel sings my song! Again, royalties?) The shepherds, too, get very excited and leave the stage.

You are reaching the end of the churchyard and are now approaching the front entrance of the church. Suddenly, you see two Bethlehemites talking in very excited voices. They are surprised that the shepherds have left their sheep. And why is everyone heading to that stable? They join in your crowd, asking you if you've seen the star in the sky? Together, you approach the crowd gathered at the front of the stable. And there you see it - a baby. A gorgeous, tiny, real baby. Held by his (or her!) mother and father. A citizen of Bethlehem announces that this is wonderful day for us who live here in Bethlehem. As the citizen talks, the crowd starts to sing the first lines of Silent Night. And then, our citizen says the line that gets me every time,

"Our God has been born as a human being, and dwells here among us. Let us celebrate this holiest of miracles."

That's it. That's the climax. What else needs to be said? What else do we need to hear?

The crowd sings a few more carols, and then the "mayor of Bethlehem" invites you round the corner for hot chocolate and candy canes. Another group is waiting to see the final scene, so you must move forward, please.

This year, we had perfect weather, which has always been a blessing for us. We do have a God-forbid-it-rains plan, and we pray we never have to use it. Tonight, we ran our play 29 times, one time for each group that went through. In a professional theatre run, that would be equivalent to an almost-four-week run. We had 400 audience members. Due to the weather, the actors are all double cast. You go out, do your scene for 30 minutes, and then another group of actors comes out to relieve you for 30 minutes while you go inside and warm up. That means we need 50 actors and singers to cast this show, plus several sets of babies. Each baby is out for two 30-minute sets, and must be accompanied by both parents, who play silent Mary and Joseph. We also need approximately 50 volunteers for tour guides, costumes, sets, feeding the actors,etc. It takes weeks of rehearsal and several days to set up and strike the stages.

Why do so much work for a one night show?

This year, I was the "mayor of Bethlehem". Because I was near the final scene, I would join in the singing. I got to see people's faces when they realized the whole crowd was singing. I got to hear them add their voices to the song. Then, I got to talk to them after they had seen the show. Some people were there for the first time. They brought whole families composed of several generations. The children loved the angels and the real baby. And I got to meet people who've been coming for several years. It's become a part of their Christmas tradition. I even met people who've been coming for all eight years. How awesome is that?

I don't have all the numbers in front of me, but over the last eight years, we have told this story, this Gospel story, to thousands of people. If you add in our television coverage, you can make that tens of thousands.

That's why we do it. It's so much fun, and we all love doing it. And each year, we get to tell hundreds of people:

"God has become a human being and dwells among us. Let us celebrate this holiest of miracles."

Monday, December 05, 2005

Fairlawn United, and Carolling season begins!

Today was a great day of singing.

This morning, I was the guest soloist at Fairlawn United Church. Last year, they started a monthly contemporary worship service. Like so many churches, they are trying to find new ways to worship and new ways to energize their time of praise. This service is done early in the morning, so that they can still have their traditional service at 10:30. To really emphasize the difference in the worship, this service is even done in a different part of the building. (I'm sure this is for technical reasons, but I saw it as very symbolic.)

We all met in the gym in the basement of the church. Chairs were arranged in a circle, with an undecorated Christmas tree in the middle. Coffee and juice were available for all the parishioners willing to brave the early morning. (Okay, it's only 9:00, but for some of us, that's early!) They have a screen set up for song lyrics, and they've assembled a great team to lead music. I believe it's mostly volunteers, and they are just awesome. It's a mix of kids and not-kids, singing and playing a variety of instruments. Their energy is wonderful.

My first song was Soon and Very Soon. I was accompanied by piano and djembe, and I played my tambourine. It was so much fun, and a great way to start the service. We were rocking out, and I invited everyone to sing on the last chorus and they all sang and clapped. Funny - when I was younger, I never would have invited people to sing along with me. Now, I just love it. Oh dear, am I maturing or something?

One of the young readers read a passage from Luke about the nativity and then I sang my own song, The Stable Bare. I was accompanied by piano and guitar and the whole thing was just how I like it - simple and quiet. Simple, and yet the energy during the song was powerful. After the last note, everyone was just silent. You could hear a pin drop. I feel so blessed that God has given me this simple little song to sing.

The service proceeded with the telling of the story of the Mitten Tree. At the end of the story, we all brought up mitts and hats to put on the tree, all of which will be delivered to needy families in the city. It sounds silly to say it, but I found the whole thing very emotional! I couldn't look at the tree covered with offerings without tearing up. And singing O Christmas Tree just about did me in!

After the service, the feedback was wonderful, but the thing that thrilled me most was the reaction to The Stable Bare. People genuinely loved it. I just felt so honoured at their reaction.

This afternoon, I had a bit of switch. It's the start of the Victorian Christmas Carolling season! I've been doing this for years, and last year, when I started Jarvis Muse Productions, I decided to start my own group. It's exactly what you think it is - we get all dressed up in costumes and walk around singing Christmas carols. And I have to tell you, I love it! I love the costumes. I love the music. I love singing with my friends. And mostly, I love seeing the reaction on people's faces when they hear us sing their favourite songs.

Today we sang at Allan Gardens, which is a tropical greenhouse in the middle of downtown Toronto. For three hours, we stood among the palm trees and sang in acapella harmony. I was especially proud today of our new costumes. After last year, I decided I wanted to have my own set of costumes, and, of course, I was really picky about how they looked. So, I made them! I'm not really a sewer, but for the last week, I've been hunched over a sewing machine stitching velvet skirts and thick red capes. And I have to say, they look awesome. (I don't sew much, so I totally feel it's okay to brag on this one!)

At the end of our last set, we talked with a family who'd been listening to us for the whole three hours. They were so happy that we'd been there to sing. The little girl asked us for our autograph. We all wished each other a Merry Christmas.

... That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.