Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Christmas shopping at Honest Ed's was a joy for 'Mrs. Claus'

 [My friend, Richard, sent me a text at 5:34 a.m. on February 14 informing me that his godmother, Raphaelita Walker, transitioned. It was peaceful and he was there. My condolences to him and to Raphaelita's family and the members of the Jamaican Canadian Association. In light of this news, I'm sharing a story I wrote in December 2016 for the North American Weekly Gleaner's Christmas Feature after interviewing Raphaelita about her role as Mrs. Claus and shopping at the iconic Honest Ed's for gifts for the annual JCA Kids Christmas Party.]

Christmas shopping at Honest Ed’s was a joy for ‘Mrs. Claus’
By Neil Armstrong

Left-right: Adaoma Patterson, president of the Jamaican Canadian Association, Gifford and Raphaelita Walker at the annual JCA Kids Christmas Party on December 4, 2016.                    Photo contributed

When the 68-year-old landmark Toronto discount store, Honest Ed’s, permanently closes its doors at the end of December, Jamaican, Raphaelita Walker, who plays ‘Mrs. Santa Claus’ at an annual Christmas Party for kids at the Jamaican Canadian Association (JCA), will miss it.

Walker and her husband, Gifford, have been playing ‘Mr. & Mrs. Santa Claus’ at the JCA for more than 20 years.

Walker, who celebrated her 90th birthday on Dec.11, says she has been shopping at Honest Ed’s since 1963 – the first store she went to when she came from England.

The store was established in 1948 by the late Ed Mirvish who ran it for almost 60 years until his death in 2007.

Since then, his son, David Mirvish, has owned the property and sold it in 2013 to a Vancouver-based development company, Westbank Properties.

“I’ve been shopping there all the while because you always get things on special. Anything you need you can always get it at Honest Ed’s,” says Walker.

She said in England she used to get things at the drugstore, but when she came here  she couldn’t find some things, even to fill her prescription in other stores. However, she found them at the legendary store.

“That was my favourite store,” says Walker. “Sometimes when they have things on sale and they allow you just a certain amount, my friend and I would go. And we go in and get and then I come out, then she waits for me until I get some more.”

She said the main time for this kind of shopping was at Christmas.

Retired Toronto Star journalist, Jamaican Royson James, who immigrated to Canada from Jamaica in 1969, lived just north of the store on Bathurst St.

In a column published in February 2012, James writes:  “Bathurst St. was the axis of immigrant Caribbean-Canadian life. Honest Ed’s was the black Eaton’s.”

When the JCA had just started in 1962, its members used to organize a Thanksgiving dinner but after a while stopped it.

Walker said when the organization started a Christmas party for the kids they would get good buys at Honest Ed’s.

“You couldn’t get more than a certain amount, so we, the committee, we would go and somebody wait outside. Then you go in and you buy that we could get to wrap the gifts for the kids.”

At that time, the JCA did not have a building so they would meet in members’ homes to organize wrapping the gifts.

They also held meetings at various community centres and used mainly a hall at Oakwood and Vaughan.

On one occasion, they went to Jane and Finch and when they finished handing out gifts five kids had none.

They went to the nearby store, bought some gifts, and gave it to them.

Walker said in the early days, Air Jamaica sponsored the Santa Claus party for two consecutive years.

Sometimes, they have as many as 200 kids at the annual event.

She said it was the late Eva Smith, a tireless community worker, who encouraged her to dress up as Santa Claus one year when Gifford was on holiday and none of the men wanted to fill the role.

It was held at the U.N.I.A. Hall on College St. then and Walker said while putting on the Santa Claus costume she forgot to stuff a pillow underneath it to create a paunch.

After getting his gift, a little boy exclaimed “what a skinny Santa” which was quite amusing to her.

A couple years ago, a child age 8 or 9 got his gift and asked twice “a black Santa?” and Walker said “yes.” His reply was “cool man, cool.”

Another tugged at his mother’s arm on a bus telling her that Walker who was also on the bus was Mrs. Claus.

His mother did not believe him until upon leaving the bus she asked Walker if she was Mrs. Claus. She answered “yes” and the little boy was very happy that he was right all along.

Reminiscing, Walker said Honest Ed’s was “such a great store for immigrants,” while also remembering the role that Al Hamilton and her daughter Olivia ‘Babsy’ Grange played in founding the newspaper, Contrast, which was located on the same block.

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