The first thing Casius Underwood asked of Santa was for his mom to be happy at Christmas.
The seven-year-old, intuitive beyond his years, seemed to sense the stress his single mother was under over the holidays as she works full time to provide for him and his great-grandmother.
But as Casius, his mom, Jessica Underwood, and her mother, Angela Underwood, sat down amid carollers and the smell of turkey and stuffing for dinner on Thursday, that stress seemed to evaporate.
Jessica Underwood has been attending the annual Christmas Spirit Community Dinner at Glad Tidings Church for 22 of its 24 years, since she was 17. Back then, the dinner was held at the Ukrainian Cultural Centre.
“I came from a family where we didn’t always have Christmas and sometimes this was our dinner,” said Underwood, 39.
“There have been times when I didn’t know how I was going to fend for my son and knowing that we can come here and be with our community. … It gives my son a good sense of where he comes from.”
Underwood works as a construction flagperson but doesn’t get many shifts in December. She has gone back to school for training in waste-water management.
“He sees me struggle all year long, he knows how hard I work to make sure he has a Christmas,” she said of her son.
Underwood watched her own mother struggle to provide for the family and has often relied on the food bank to fill the cupboards.
One year, the family was robbed two days before Christmas, and the community dinner was the only thing that got them through the hardship. “We would just know that someone cared,” Underwood said, tearing up.
Casius, who is in Grade 2 at Marigold Elementary School, wants to be a football player or a wrestler when he grows up, despite the fact that he knows he’s named after the boxer Muhammad Ali.
For Christmas, he bought his grandmother a First Nations-style silver pendant and his mother a silver raven necklace. On Thursday afternoon, he gave his mom and grandma a cuddle and said he was pretty sure his request from Santa had been fulfilled.
The Christmas dinner served more than 400 people at two seatings, while hundreds more ate at the barbecue outside.
The preparation is a months-long endeavour, with parents registering in to make sure their children get personalized presents from Santa. About 175 gifts are handed out to children, plus 250 stockings for the adults.
Just like last year, an Ontario businessman who wishes to remain anonymous donated the money for 45 turkeys — about 400 kilograms of meat — which were cooked by staff from Truffles Catering at Royal Roads University.
One family collected donations from relatives as far away as Germany and Australia to pay for the hams.
Another man, who is on a motorcycle trip down the west coast of North America, sent money to pay for half of the produce.
Christina Parkhurst, who organizes the annual dinner, said she often asks volunteers why they keep coming back every year, some for almost two decades. “Their answer is inevitably: ‘Because of what the dinner represents.’ We aim to make sure it’s family [oriented] and inclusive and the kind of dinner that you’d want to have at home,” Parkhurst said.
Parkhurst’s children, Anya, 14, and Keir, 12, who are put to work running the craft table or handing out secret Santa gifts, don’t know any other way to celebrate the holidays.
“We keep coming back because this is really what we want to do on Christmas Day every year,” she said. “We can’t imagine being anywhere else.”