In our hemisphere, Christmas Eve does not fall on the darkest night of the year. It comes to us three days after the winter solstice, marking a resolute shift in the orientation of the Earth that sees our days grow longer and the Sun stronger as the North turns its face toward summer. It comes to us at a moment when we've had quite enough of 4 pm sunsets, a miracle so ordinary it could pass without notice. It comes as a proof that the darkness cannot overpower the light.
We saw the truth of this repeated many times over during the four Saturdays of the Festival's absolutely free Christmas concerts on Dundarave Beach, a constant affirmation of the light in our community that darkness cannot overcome.
If you were in the Festival's Longhouse on our first Saturday, you would have seen the power of this when the Youth Choir of the Sarah McLachlan Music Outreach struck up their cover of Sarah's powerful hymn to the beauty of living, "Ordinary Miracle". The sun was strong and two eagles perched in the crown of a tree high above the roof of our longhouse.
You would have seen this truth again on our second Saturday, as the Squamish Elders in regalia blessed the Festival site and welcomed the return of the Dundarave Nativity. It is in the lines of the new king, Melchior, and the 700 hour labour of love Master Carver Bill Seminoff committed to carving this dignified and powerful work.
It found its voice repeatedly, in the uplifting diversity of the performers at the Festival's World Christmas, from Laurell's down home and passionate song book to the VOC Sweet Soul Gospel Choir, the epic sound of El Mariachi and the unrepeatable moments we shared with Silk Road.
And just as the days were contracting, as though the light would never return to us, we faced the darkness together on the Festival's Christmas Wassail and Bonfire Night and answered the night with song, fearless Morris dancing and, through the unfailing courtesy of the District of West Vancouver, a twenty metre bonfire.
We could answer the darkness because the heart of this Festival of Lights is the light every family, every senior, every couple brings to it. It's the light in the Festival's tree sponsors, the light in the generosity of the North Shore section of the Real Estate Board and West Vancouver's heroic Firefighters' Benevolent Association, who together have seen a donation this season to the Lookout Emergency Aid Society's North Shore Shelter of $25,000. This brings the total the Festival has raised for the Shelter over the past three Christmases to $75,000.
In all of this the generous grant the Festival received from the Department of Canadian Heritage allowed us to build the Festival site, with the tireless expertise of Wild Coast Productions creating a beautiful and welcoming space against even the worst weather. The grant for Canadian Heritage allowed us to stream over $30,000 in new funding to the performing arts in our community. This has allowed, to pick two shining examples, the West Van Youth Band to commission a new work to mark its 80th anniversary and the St. Thomas Aquinas Show Choir an easier passage to compete in San Francisco.
The darkness we've answered is the cold pull of indifference and isolation that could eat away at the roots of our community; the belief that we are strangers to each other. We've seen the opposite in the Dundarave Festival of Lights this year. It shone out in the faces of the wheel chair bound neighbours, the families and seniors, the kids who shouted their lungs out during our Mummery plays and got their praise on with the VOC Gospel Choir. Before the days turned to summer, there was the warmth, light and life of summer in all of us -- gathered in the Festival Longhouse and sprawled out into the forest of Christmas trees. A light the darkness cannot over power, it shines out in each of us as the true spirit of Christmas and the best spirit of our community.
On Saturday when the Elders of the Squamish Nation gathered, in regalia, in the Festival's Dundarave Nativity Pavilion a brooding and prayerful quiet fell over the Beach. The sun was as high as it can get at this time of year, low on the horizon and heading faster than any of us would like it to set behind the jagged ridges of Vancouver Island. The Elders' purpose, and the sincerity of the way they expressed it took your breath away, was to honour the nobility and goodness of the spirit in everyone gathered at the Festival, pressing in all around them in the Pavilion. They placed our Master Carver Bill Seminoff at the heart of the site, asking him to stand beside Melchior, the second king of the Dundarave Nativity, honouring the 700 hour labour of love Bill had poured into this carving to make sure it would be ready for this Christmas. Lead by Wes Nahanee, they raised their hands above their heads in the highest form of greeting and then they lifted their voices in song, signing in the first language heard on this beach thousands of years ago.
We did not know at the time that all of them were carrying with them the pain of a terrible act of violence that took place the night before in their neighbourhood. There was only a powerful dignity in their faces, a deep joy welling up as they struck the drums and sang those ancient words. This was a moment of grace borne out in music, and when they finished their first song of blessing the crowd gathered around them, and most of us had not heard anything like this before, fell into something like a silent awe until Wes Nahanee said "It's alright everyone, you can make noise if you want to". And then the ovation came, rolling like a peal of thunder from everyone gathered round.
At the end, after the Elders had made their procession from the Dundarave Nativity Pavilion to the Festival Longhouse, they said this was as it should be, that all of us in all of our diversity -- from the first peoples to walk on this Beach to the people from every corner of the planet who now join them here, should enjoy the freedom of living in peace and joy of this afternoon every moment of the year.
There was a different joy, but the same spirit, when Cheko Tohomaso took centre stage at the Festival Longhouse with his VOC Sweet Soul Gospel Choir. He drew it out of us, setting spirituals and standard carols to a rollicking Motown vibe. You could not keep silent, or keep your feet still in the presence of a choir and a choir director who named the importance of our moment with soul.
And so the Festival continues to its World Christmas, doubly blessed.
There was a golden moment when we launched the Festival last Saturday with the Dundarave Christmas Fair. The Sarah McLachlan Music Outreach Youth Choir was just striking up their cover version of Sarah's haunting hymn to the beauty of life, Ordinary Miracle, an eagle landed in the crown of a tree high above the Festival's Longhouse when everything went 'click'.
It was a moment of complete confirmation of the goodness rooted deep in our community.
You could see it in the thousand people who filtered and thronged through the Fair, turning Dundarave Beach into a wonderful public square. Neighbours met neighbours, the astonishingly generous family that was hosting a Christmas party for their friends around their Christmas tree gave their cider and hot chocolate to anyone who asked, and kids were everywhere. They sang with the Red Hot Mammas, took centre stage in the Festival Longhouse with the Pacific Spirit Children's Choir, choked us up with Ordinary Miracle, huddled in their wheel chairs under the brilliant heaters supplied by Wild Coast Productions (it's true, Wild Coast thinks of everything.) And they danced -- spontaneously on beach logs to the enormous sound of the West Van Youth Band, and with a dark, druidic joy as Bowen Island's Black Lambs (the only kids' Morris side in Canada, as far as we know) took to the lawn of Dundarave Beach.
This was a start to the holidays that was organic and pure joy, showing that kids empowered by music can deepen our humanity, open wide the door to bliss, and connect us with the vast, loving spirit of the Christmas season.
You don't really expect to find, to borrow from our friends at West Vancouver's Mayor and Council, "the true spirit of the season and the best spirit of our community", at a homeless shelter on one of the coldest days on record. But this is exactly what happened as we trailed Jason, Jay, and James of the West Vancouver Firefighters Charitable Society on a tour of the Lookout Society's North Shore shelter lead by Jody, the shelter's tireless manager.
For the record (again--and we won't tire of repeating it) West Van's firefighters have been, through their benevolent society, the single largest donors we've had to date through the Dundarave Festival of Lights to the North Shore Shelter. They have multiplied several fold the generosity of every tree sponsor. Through this generous and heroic giving they have helped all of us answer the reality of homelessness in our community fearlessly and hopefully.
The numbers are grim. There are more people -- including, for the first time this year in the Shelter's history, seniors -- turning to this discrete building for help against the soul-killing, life devouring reality of homelessness. The first floor of the shelter, which only two years ago was reserved only for cold weather, emergency housing, has bunk beds that our now filled all season long. This is, second only to Lionsgate Hospital, the hardest-working building on the North Shore with a 107% occupancy rate and a cold weather policy of never turning anyone away.
We are made for bigger things than just keeping body and soul together against the cold. We're built to thrive. Together, with our roots deep in our community, we can save lives, transform personalities, bring encouragement, hope and power to people who have known little more than despair and isolation. The proof of this is in Chef Don Guthro's work in founding the North Shore Culinary Training Program at the North Shore Shelter. This program, which receives new money every year from the Dundarave Festival of Lights, is answering homelessness in the best way possible: one person at a time.
The way forward, as shown by our firefighters, is to answer the reality of homelessness with a deeper humanity. Answering the needs of the seniors and anyone else who is homeless in our community does not make us heroes, it keeps us human. There is a fierce beauty in this work of ending homelessness together. This fierce beauty is the true spirit of the Christmas season and the best spirit of our community.
The winter here, to borrow from our neighbour Sarah McLachlan, is cold and bitter; it chills us to the bone. Last night the first snow fell, but the thrill it gave us flowed largely from the fact that we had warm beds waiting. Snow means something else entirely if you're sleeping in a ravine, or if you're a senior and can't afford to keep the heat on. The arrival of this cold, bitter season means the North Shore Shelter, and shelters throughout the region, will have to lay out emergency beds to keep the bodies and souls together.
This afternoon we set a forest of Christmas trees into Dundarave Beach as a witness to hope, with each tree providing a powerful answer to the loneliness and desperation of a life without a home. The trees allow us to take sides. Great Canadian Landscaping prepped the beach for us this week, lovingly as only master gardeners can. Mario Russell lead two trailer loads of trees from his Valley View Farm that were even more magnificent than the forest he produced for us last Christmas. And a legion of friends, old and new, including students from Sentinel and St. Thomas Aquinas, homemakers, graphic artists, kids, lawyers, firefighters and the ever-reliable Knights of Columbus, set the trees in their rightful places on this spectacular beach. Without decoration, standing dark and verdant, they are a witness to the best hope we can have for our community -- especially the people in our community without secure homes of their own. The trees make a statement of solidarity, they affirm the beauty of the bonds that hold us together in our common humanity. And when they are decorated, hung with strands of LED lights, they shine with the fierce spirit of our community -- a love for this place, a love for each other that the bitter cold and darkness cannot overcome.
So a word of welcome to everyone who walks through the forest of Christmas trees as it stands now, row upon row of trees standing in expectation of the bright day of love and friendship that's coming to all of us and especially, because this is Christmas, to the people who most need to see the arrival of that bright day.
Every so often you come to a moment in the life of this Festival that shines with the best spirit of what we're about as a community. This happened last night, when an anonymous donor stepped forward to sponsor a Christmas tree to celebrate the West Vancouver Memorial Library's 60th Anniversary. The Library's mission, as set out explicitly by its founders, was to answer the horrors of the Second World War by making the diversity of human understanding available to our community, as an anchor for democracy and inclusion. Sixty years later, our library boasts one of the highest readership rates in Metro Vancouver. Join us in celebrating the diamond anniversary of the West Vancouver Memorial Library, a jewel in the crown of our community, at the Dundarave Festival of Lights.
Standing at West Vancouver's cenotaph today, with flights of aircraft passing in formation overhead, I remembered one veteran who stands in my memory for all of the veterans we've known. Alec McCauley had the iron handshake of a man who could land a Harvard aircraft frozen solid in the dead of winter at his WWII fighter training centre in Cold Lake Alberta. He told us this story, and more, years back as we shared a Thanksgiving dinner. He trained his fighter pilots to land frozen planes, he explained, so that they would be ready for anything and all of the boys could come home from the fight.
Not all of them in the end came home, and you could see the weight of this truth on him, passing across his face like the shadow of a cloud, as he told us about his time at war.
Alec helps us to take personally the gratitude that has to factor into Rememberance Day. This day is about the generations of men and women who were tested in the ordeals of a nation at war, a world at war and triumphed.
We are the proof of their victory.
We owe them a debt we cannot repay, except perhaps by paying it forward.
As they fought tyranny to affirm the goodness in all of us, to answer the barbarity of totalitarian government that would have made the brute violence of the state the measure of all things, it falls to us in our own ways to call our community to an ever deeper humanity. It falls to us to answer the ways loneliness, poverty, old age and the ordeals of life sap joy from life; our work -- and it is a happy, life affirming labour of love -- is to make sure everyone can claim his or her place at the heart of our community.
This Christmas in the Dundarave Festival of Lights, every step of a Morris dancer, every note attempted by a child in a first public concert, every chord of a Mariachi orchestra or lightning bolt struck from a fiddle, every tree shining against the darkness pays forward the debt of honour and gratitude we owe to the generations of men and women who fought and sacrificed for our freedom, for our ability to stand in peace and friendship at Dundarave Beach.
They built our community, calling it out of the ancient forests, laying the foundations of our schools and churches, our roads, bridges and libraries. They fought and sacrificed through two world wars, preserving the ideas of democracy and freedom against evil and suffering on a scale the world had never seen before. They "bathed" in the waters at Dundarave Beach, basked in the sun there and climbed the mountains to ski on virgin slopes, gave birth to our generations.
Today, and you will not read their stories in the North Shore News, the Outlook or in any other paper, many of the children of this "great generation", many of our elders have to make a choice between buying groceries and paying the rent. The economic downturn has hit some of them the hardest, forcing them out of their homes and into the Lookout Emergency Aid Society's North Shore Shelter. They are turning quietly to the shelter from West Vancouver and North Vancouver, not calling attention to the fact that they cannot keep a roof over their heads after giving their lives to create our way of life.
According to the staff of the Shelter, all of this started to happen with alarming speed over the last year, since the close of the Festival in 2009. Seniors, some of them with advanced degrees, started turning to the Shelter as their last recourse against the disturbing reality of the economic downturn. We don't know their names, nor do we have a right to know their names. They are registered in the 478 people who have logged into the Shelter, somewhere in the majority of people who stayed there for an average duration of 22.15 days between our last New Year's Day and today.
We have the power to answer their need, to give them love and support and safe harbour against a brutal economy, by lighting trees of hope on Dundarave Beach. Over the past two Christmases, these trees have raised $50,000 for the North Shore Shelter, and we are well on our way to increasing this running total in the Christmas that's coming to us now. Sponsor a Christmas tree for the elder in your life who's helped make you the person you are today, sponsor a tree for your family or school, for your business, church or community group, and let your tree be a brilliant part of the solution. This Christmas, in the Dundarave Festival of Lights, we can work to the day when we end homelessness beautifully. We can shine in the true spirit of the season, and live the best spirit of our community.
There was an amazing moment at last year's Dundarave Festival of Lights, the day we rolled out again for the season -- as it had been brought out for over a generation -- the Dundarave Nativity to its place of honour at the heart of the Beach. The sun was bright on this last Saturday of November, and three school choirs took up the Festival's invitation to sing whatever they liked to get us into the spirit of the moment. Many of these kids -- most of them, in fact -- had never had a chance to sing in a public space. They'd sung in rehearsals in their schools, and in concerts again inside the schools and these experiences were empowering. But there was something else at work, you could see it in their faces, as they belted out carols to people they'd never met before. Hundreds of people gathered around them, pressing in at the Peace Globe on Dundarave Beach, under palm trees and a speckless sky. It was an experience of full on, unabashed joy.
The Festival brought to these kids a new experience of freedom. And it's a wonderful thing for us to find in the Sarah McLachlan Foundation an organization dedicated to give this experience of freedom to kids the whole year through. In the Foundation's words:
Sparked by the influence of music in her life, international singer and songwriter Sarah McLachlan dreamed for a long time of opening a music school for inner city youth. Her dream first took shape with the creation of The Sarah McLachlan Foundation (SMF) in 1999, and in 2002 it became a reality with the opening of the Foundation’s first free music school – the Sarah McLachlan Music Outreach (SMMO).
Inspired by her vision, the Foundation’s mandate is simple: to bring music into the lives of young Canadians; building self-esteem, and fostering creativity through the power of song and sound. The school is dedicated to helping young people ﬁnd their voice by providing a free music education. It's the start of a relationship with music that will have a lasting impact on all parts of their lives.
We're delighted to welcome the Youth Choir from the Sarah McLachlan Music Outreach to Dundarave Beach; we are kindred spirits in this beautiful work.
For eighteen years, the Dundarave Festival of Lights has made a brave attempt at gathering school choirs, youth bands and adult orchestras to meet the worst winter weather with song. We've been signing in the rain, even when the rain's come at us horizontally from the North Pacific on the teeth of an icey December wind.
This changes now, as the Festival enters its nineteenth year. The weather might still be frightful -- never any guarantees there -- but the Festival now has the funding it needs, thanks to a grant from the Department of Canadian Heritage, to create intimate, temporary performance spaces on Dundarave Beach that will keep our audiences and performers secure and dry against even the worst winter weather. This means that groups that are changing our experience of community, like the North Shore's very own Burstin with Broadway, can find their footing on a dry stage. It means they, along with school bands and choirs, Morris dancers and mariachi bands, folk singers and community orchestras can look to the Festival for funding, new dollars in a tough economy. We are making steady progress in raising the money necessary to end homelessness in our community, but we can now do this beautifully by building our community through West Vancouver's principal celebration of the arts at Christmas. The Festival's grant will allow us to celebrate the diversity, talent and joy of music in our community in ways we've never been able to do before, outdoors in (as the carol has it) the bleak midwinter: Earth may stand like iron, water may be like stone but we can this Christmas let the sunshine in.
The Festival's performance program will take us through four Saturdays leading to Christmas, starting with the Dundarave Christmas Fair at Dundarave Beach on November 27th and culminating with our Christmas Wassail and (legendary) Bonfire Night, December 18th. Stay tuned to www.dundaravefestival.com for the full performance schedule.
The Dundarave Festival Society
We are a circle of friends working in the Dundarave Festival of Lights Society to bring to life the promise of Christmas in our community, a season of life, passion and purpose that leaves no one in the cold. This is community-driven social change, in the true spirit of Christmas and the best spirit of our community.