Updated: Sep 14, 2022
“And so this is Christmas . . . and what have you done?
Another year over, and a new one just begun . . .”
The familiar strains of John Lennon’s Christmas classic filled the old Empress theatre in Fort Macleod, AB with groovy peace and love. I fought the rising lump in my throat, chalking it up to the collision of worlds: one of the few Christmas songs I actually enjoy, from the pen of a dead hippie, delivered in the rusty, dusty voice of an Indigenous elder in a velvet tuxedo – to the families of farmers and cowboys who’d gathered from across redneck country to catch the show. They’d paid $42 a head to listen to a former addict-turned TV star and celebrity, who’d once slept in a ditch and filled the hole in his arm and heart with a mission to feed the least fortunate in a country that had displaced his own mother’s heritage.
“I love Canada,” says Tom Jackson. He proves it yearly by travelling from coast to coast to raise money for the food bank and multiple other service agencies. To the merriment of the crowd, he joked, “O Canada, your home’s on Native land,” and followed the opener with the national anthem, which had everyone on their feet singing along when the show had barely begun. I steeled my cynical self for what was to come. Bah humbug!
Ok, I admit it. I hate Christmas, and I hate Christmas music even more. It starts in mid-October, even before Halloween goblins are gone, permeating the airwaves with sleigh bells and angel choirs, falling like unwelcome Alberta snowflakes into elevators, shopping malls and my car radio with sappy pleas for peace not reflected in history, the headlines or in my own life. Once I found out Santa wasn’t coming down the chimney no matter how good I was, and the “reason for the season” got buried in tinsel, it’s all been downhill from there. Give me the Day of the Dead, instead!
Sad to say, this was my mindset as I settled in for Tom Jackson’s annual Huron Carole show, on the second of 17 benefit performances across Canada this winter. John MacArthur Ellis was slinging guitar in the all-star band of Western Canadian A-list musicians, along with Tom McKillip on guitar and vocals, Kirby Barber on bass and vocals, Darryl Havers on keys and Chris “The Wrist” Nordquist on drums.
As if the line-up wasn’t enough of an incentive, John twisted my arm, saying, “Tom might be just who you need to hear tonight – a very powerful, insightful, spiritual man. The show is moving, and I think it might give you an idea or two. There was one gal in the audience last night who has been travelling from the Yukon every year for the past 17 years to see it.”
Well, I am suspicious of powerful, insightful, spiritual men (and women) having met not a few that bank upon these impressions to meet the needs of their own egos – and pockets. All the same, me and the Grinch on my shoulder had nothing better to do on a chilly winter’s eve, so I went. Maybe I thought there was a chance my heart would grow a size or two.
I’d heard of the show, of course. It’s a Canadian musical tradition that’s been in the headlines from coast to coast for the past 32 years. Featuring songs and stories from its host, an accompanying best-selling CD, and this year’s new “Six Weeks to Christmas” video series, it’s had many incarnations – from intimate performances in small-town halls to a decade’s worth of televised Christmas specials airing on Country Beat, CBC, CMT and APTN. Additional fundraising efforts have included the Red River Relief, the Slave Lake Benefit Concert, the Holiday Train, and many others. Along the way, Tom’s brought dozens of Canada’s most beloved voices to his cause and to his audiences, including Susan Aglukark, Michelle Wright, Chantal Kreviazuk, Natalie McMaster, the Nylons, and many more.
In the process, Tom and his non-profit Christmas and Winter Relief Association have raised over $200 million in cash and in-kind contributions for food banks, shelters, rehab services, and disaster relief agencies. How does a man whose busy career has included appearances in dozens of television and film projects including Cold Pursuit, Cardinal, North of 60, Star Trek: Next Generation, Law and Order, and Outlander, as well as ten record releases of his own folk-pop songs, find the time and commitment for a “side project” of this magnitude?
It turns out I had it backwards. In Tom’s view, showbiz is just fuel for the real mission.
“In this country, there’s a huge gap between the haves and have-not’s,” he says. “If we don’t stop the bleeding, who will? One night, long before I ever had a career, I was talking to the Creator, and he said, ‘I’m going to send you an angel. And this angel is going to need you a lot more than you need him. If you help him, I’ll help you.’ But he didn’t tell me where I was going to find this angel.
“That night, I found a man lying on the ground in the cold. I got him into an ambulance and discovered something – that I need to help to be helped. Now, who is going to believe a six-foot-five Indian drug addict? Nobody. I’m not the best actor or singer around either. But I got this idea that if I could build some sort of pedestal, I could maybe do some good from there. I started out with a job carrying cables for a production studio, and I’ve been looking for a way to stop the bleeding ever since.”
As the evening progressed, I forgot I was listening to Christmas songs, bathed in pure enjoyment of the astonishing variety of musical styles the band was able to pull off with apparent ease. I heard blues, RnB, folk, rock’n roll, maqam, Celtic, calypso and even a little Charlie Brown jazz. Everybody in the band got their moment in the spotlight as Tom at one point “forgot something” and exited the stage to leave the show in their hands. Kirby Barber’s crystalline version of Joni Mitchell’s “River” was worth the price of admission alone. Meanwhile, Tom charmed the audience utterly with jokes, stories and his own Leonard Cohen-esque versions of Christmas tunes both familiar and new.
At one point he marveled, “Joy and peace are here tonight, and nothing can take that away.” The audience agreed in one voice, shouting, “Yeah!”
After closing the program with “the Huron Carole,” the band came out from behind their mics and led the crowd in an a cappella version of “Silent Night” – another Christmas song that I don’t exactly hate. In fact, that lump in my throat finally spilled over, especially when the lights came up and the band exited through the crowd, shaking hands all around. When I saw the faces of the addicts in recovery who’d attended from the Foothills Detox Center, the agency benefiting from the ticket sales, I realized afresh that it isn’t only money that can stop the bleeding. It’s music.
Tom Jackson’s Huron Carole show gave me a lot to think about. Instead of tinsel, I found star-shine. Instead of schmaltz, I found substance. Exiting the old theatre took a good half hour, but nobody seemed to mind as people young and old laughed and chatted, reviewing the show with shining faces. When I finally got to the door, I realized what the hold-up was – Tom was there at the entrance, shaking every single hand.
I jumped in my car and drove home through the winter night, reflecting on the theme for this year’s show – “Path to a Miracle” – and on Tom’s words. “All of the people who buy tickets to this show are saving lives. What if, by helping someone else, you are actually helping yourself? And what if the person you help pays it forward? You never know what the long-range effects of a tiny act of kindness can be. What if the person you help pays it forward by helping someone you love?”
As I sped past the snowy fields, I thought I saw something sparkling in the night sky. Was it Santa’s sleigh? The North Star? Or maybe just the twinkle of a tear? Whatever it was, I realized that thanks to Tom Jackson’s Huron Carole, my heart had grown at least three sizes. I turned on the radio, and sure enough, Christmas music was playing. I drove through the darkness singing along.
As published on Roots Music Canada.ca