The two boys wore black slacks, the girl, perhaps their sister, a dress, white stockings, and black shoes, as they met Santa somewhere in Saanich, sometime in the 1960s.
Santa, obscured by an elf, hands a gift-wrapped present to the little girl, who cannot take her eyes off him. The room around her is whirling with activity, but her joyous gaze appears unbreakable.
Captured in a black-and-white photo, the occasion of this small but magical Christmas moment was a party that the Saanich Police had organized for families.
Kerri Ward, archives specialist with the District of Saanich, cannot say when and where the party happened. The identities of the individuals in the picture appear equally shrouded.
This photo co-exists with another photo from what appears to be the same party, and a photo from the early 1950s showing three Saanich police officers – Eric Elwell, Joe Armstrong and Ed Anderson – with Christmas hampers.
But if these photos refuse to yield most of their secrets, they along with a transcribed oral history from former Saanich chief constable Bob Peterson nonetheless offer a fascinating glimpse into Saanich’s Christmas past during a transformational period in Canada’s and Saanich’s history.
For one, they capture a society in transition. The personal hardships of the Second World War were giving way to a modern welfare state. But its maturation in the 1970s was still some time away, and private initiatives still constituted a significant component of local support systems, as the origins of the Needy Family Fund suggest.
As Peterson writes, Saanich Police started to hand out presents around Christmastime after a constable had grown concerned about the “plight and hardship” of a family near Christmastime. “He sought food and toy donations for this family and the response was very, very encouraging,” he writes.
“As a result of this response for the plight of one, it became very obvious that more was collected than was needed by one family, and other families were also assisted. This, then became an annual event which was greatly supported by the citizens of Saanich in funds and goods and subsequently a good deal of assistance was rendered to the police department by the health and welfare component of the municipality.”
Later, this Needy Family Fund ended up in the hands of the Greater Victoria Community Services, according to Robertson. However, it is not clear for how long it ran, and when it ended.
Ward says the officers must have been very familiar with the needs of the community to launch and administer it.
This familiarity in turn speaks to the fact that Saanich at the time was a smaller, more intimate community.
According to the 1956 census, Saanich’s population was 38,358. Ward said most of Saanich was largely rural or semi-rural at the time. This said, it was also changing rapidly. Saanich’s population had grown to 56,600 people by 1964, an undeniable echo of the post-war baby boom.
Affluence, once a domain of the few, was quickly becoming a mass phenomenon during this period, as the iron-clad demands of demographics and deliberate choices of Keynesian economics fueled suburban prosperity, growth and confidence, something Canada openly celebrated during the centennial celebrations of Confederation in 1967.
Historians, however, also note that contemporary consumerism has its roots in this period, and its present prevalence can easily encourage cynicism.
But the unidentified girl and her reaction to the gift she is about to receive still speaks to the magic of the season, especially when borne out of need and delivered by local hands.