“His hair was shoulder-length, his youthful face hid behind an abundance of shaggy beard. Over tight, faded blue jeans and an old, bulky knit, he had thrown his pride and joy — a sheepskin wrap.”
Chances are, if you’ve listened to 630 CHED during the holidays, you recognize those words. They’re the beginning to the iconic piece of radio, “A Creature was Stirring.”
The piece tells the story of a young man in the 1960s who is delivering toys for 630 CHED Santas Anonymous.
He pulls up to a house and takes two shopping bags out of his trunk. He crunches through the snow and knocks on the door. Through the dim light he sees, “poverty at Christmastime.” A young mother, with three children she can’t provide toys for, receives a bundle of brightly wrapped packages.
This story has aired on 630 CHED since 1966 and every year we get calls asking us to play it again and again and again.
“It’s all about Santas,” executive director Lana Nordlund said. “It’s all-encompassing about what we are and what we do.”
630 CHED Santas Anonymous was the brainchild of CHED employees in the ’50s. On top of their duties at the station, they had the idea to create a charity that would ensure every child would get a toy at Christmas.
IN PHOTOS: 630 CHED Santas Anonymous delivery weekend 2016
At the head of the push was Jerry Forbes. He passed away in 1981, but his son Marty — and Marty’s family — have continued the Forbes’ tradition of philanthropy.
“I have a hard time describing to people the magnitude of the start to where this is today,” Forbes said. “It was 1080 CHED back then and they had so much pride; they were the ones that started doing it. It was the receptionist, the sales guys putting it all together.”
In 1955, Santas delivered toys to about 600 children. In 2017, over 25,000 children will receive toys.
“There’s nothing like this that I know of in any other city in Canada aligned with a radio property – none,” Forbes said.
The secret to Santas is the relationship between 630 CHED and the listeners that hasn’t existed anywhere else. The boxes are put in the stores and the call for gifts is answered every year. A few weeks later, we put out the call to come spend a weekend delivering toys to kids and hundreds of people show up.
“It’s 30 below, it’s a snowstorm and here’s three generations doing this in the worst part of the weather, and not one single person is complaining about anything,” Forbes said.
That kind of turnout is what prompted Jerry to write “Creature.” Forbes said his dad wanted to do something to honour the volunteerism that was, and still is, the driving force behind Santas.
WATCH BELOW: Global News coverage of 630 CHED Santas Anonymous
The piece was written and voiced by Jerry and produced by afternoon host Bob McCord.
On the cart, a device like an 8-track or cassette that played radio elements at the time, a label said: “Don’t play until 8:20.” Morning host Wes Montgomery called Jerry asking what was on the cart and what he was getting himself into.
“My dad’s response was, ‘Just play the damn button, Wes, and you’ll see,’” Forbes laughed. “Of course he played it the first time and the line that gets everybody is the symphony hitting with ‘it hit trip hammer hard.’ Wes called my dad back, and called my dad a bugger for the effect, and said, ‘I couldn’t go talk on the radio for 20 minutes after that.’”
WATCH BELOW: Stuffed animals are thrown onto the ice at the 2016 Edmonton Oil Kings Teddy Bear Toss
Forbes has done some research and hasn’t been able to find a regular radio piece that has aired longer across the country than the story featuring his father’s voice.
For Nordlund, the effect of “Creature” is still felt today. She spends her days driving around in a van emblazoned with 630 CHED Santas Anonymous. She says people approach her all the time to talk about the charity and the feature.
“People will come up to me who lived in a small town in Saskatchewan and the only radio they got was 630 CHED, so they know that story and they know all about Santas, even though they never lived in the province, let alone the city. It’s the connection.”
While many people have a strong connection to “Creature,” it’s safe to say it resonates more strongly with Forbes and his family than anyone else.
“Driving around every year and hearing your father 36 years after he’s gone is phenomenal.”
IN PHOTOS: The 2016 Teddy Bear Toss
Santas planned a remake to create something more “relevant” to today’s audience, according to Nordlund. A script was written and a video planned, but when it was run past others on the Santas board, the answer was an overwhelming “no.”
“There are people that never heard the story and felt the new one didn’t give it justice,” she said.
This year delivery weekend is Dec. 16 and 17 at Santas’ new home – the Jerry Forbes Centre for Community Spirit.
The spirit behind “Creature” will be in full force in a couple of weeks as hundreds come out to help us deliver Christmas to thousands of children. Some of you will be returnees, some will be coming for the very first time and, for some, the weekend will mean just a little bit more.
“People self-identify all the time that they received toys as a child and didn’t know it until they were older and now they’re giving back,” Nordlund said. “So ‘Creature’ means a little bit something more to them, too.”
“We consider ourselves extremely fortunate to live and work in a city with such a deep sense of community,” 630 CHED program director Syd Smith said. “The generosity of our listeners and volunteers is quite moving, and the joy they deliver to thousands of kids each Christmas is incredible.”
One thing’s for sure for Forbes: the spirit of his late father will be around this delivery weekend, and every one after that. Not only for the charity he created and the building that bears his name, but for the words that have come to be synonymous with Christmas in Edmonton.
“Here it is 36 years later and he’s gone, but he’s still very much alive because of that feature.”