Christmas is only weeks away on the calendar, but the mood on this Tuesday afternoon is far from festive.
Pedestrians, their passing gazes fixed on some future only they can see, scurry across the grey asphalt lot of a major Saanich shopping centre.
Some appear anxious and a sadness hangs in the cold air, pierced only by the metallic rattle of a Salvation Army kettle perched near the entrance of a grocery store.
Peggy Grahn would usually make it ring, but she is taking a break this afternoon to reflect upon the time when she first came to Victoria some 18 years ago.
Grahn arrived from Edmonton because of her health.
“I have some arthritis issues, and the weather is very helpful for that,’’ says Grahn with a quiet voice. “Where we came from, the winters are very brutal. They are very cold.“
But if the wet but mild climate of the West Coast is more soothing than the climes of the Prairies, Grahn and her then-12-year-old son did not settle in easily.
They were, as she recalls, struggling. Enter the Salvation Army, which provided the Grahns with additional support. “It was pretty hard and they helped me out with food, and a voucher for clothing. I thought that was really nice for them to do that.”
While Grahn says she and her son “weren’t in rags’’ during this time, the additional help made a difference.
Grahn says she received assistance from the Salvation Army for about two years, a period that included their first Christmas in Victoria.
“We got a nice Christmas hamper and nice toys for my son,’’ she says. “It was awesome. He was excited. He was really happy about it.”
Fast forward to the recent past.
Conscious of the conditions that confront many on the margins of society and inspired by a friend, Grahn decided to ring the bell for the Salvation Army two years ago.
“I thought the cause is worthy, because of the economy that we are living in now,“ she says.
“Food and rent is so expensive,” she says. “Every year, they try to help more and more people, especially single-parent families…that need presents for kids at Christmastime but can’t otherwise afford it, because they are just struggling to pay rent [and] bills for food.“
Grahn says standing in the cold is the hardest part of the job, which despite its hardships, is deeply rewarding.
“Just putting in time is a good thing, to help other people,” she says.
For Grahn, the kettle represents the spirit of caring and giving.
“I think it’s the central focus of God’s love that we should reach out to people and care about people, especially around Christmas, when people might not have a lot,” she says.
While Christmas might be the most visible period for the Salvation Army, it tries to make a difference year-round, says Grahn.
“The money we make for Christmas is to last for the whole year,’’ she says. “It helps people throughout the whole year.”
But that is in the future, and for now, Grahn looks forward to Christmas.
She is standing at the kettle again, talking to an older women, not much her senior.
While Grahn’s daughter will not be able to come to Victoria, Grahn’s son will join her for Christmas.
“We will have a nice Christmas together,” she says with a smile.
Suddenly, it feels a little bit more like Christmas.