Santa’s elves hard at work in St. Albert

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St. Albert’s seniors are hard at work in Santa’s workshop this month to bring handcrafted Christmas cheer to a tree near you.

The gift shop at Red Willow Place is piled high with dino dolls, baby shoes, cribbage boards, bookends and other Christmas crafts this month. Most of these items were hand-made by a team of volunteers known around the St. Albert Seniors Association as “Santa’s elves.”

The association’s volunteer carpenters and seamstresses work year-round to produce items for the gift shop, but kick into high gear for the big Christmas craft fair in late fall, said executive director Karin Debenham.

“They are so creative and they want to be busy, so they never stop producing.”

Winston Lane is the unofficial chief elf of the wood-shop, which becomes “Santa’s Workshop” for the holiday season. A retired curriculum supervisor from Newfoundland, he said he grew up making and floating model boats with his dad, and would often craft wooden toys and shelves with his daughter.

“I just love working with wood.”

Lane and the five or so other carpentry elves work about four hours a day most days in the association’s workshop, turning donated and purchased wood into a variety of crafts. Many of their ideas come from online sites such as Pinterest, he said.

The crew knocked out about a hundred birdhouses, bookends, painted sleds, trays and stools earlier this year for the big Christmas fair, and continues to sand away at doll furniture, rocking horses, and poker-card holders.

“One of our big, big, big sellers is puzzle trays,” Lane said, which are used to hold jigsaw puzzles. They’ve sold so many of them at this point he guesses that every home in the city must have one.

“We make half a dozen or so at a time and by the time we get them into the gift shop, they’re gone.”

Ineke Cenek is one of the association’s dedicated sewing elves. She and about 10 other venerable seamstresses meet Friday mornings to sew and chat using donated wool and fabric, fashioning them into shirts, hats, coats, teddy bears, and their best-selling Newfoundland-pattern mittens.

“We work mostly from home,” Cenek said, and produce whatever the store needs based on the materials at hand.

Cenek grew up in Holland, where you learned knitting in Grade 2, embroidery in Grade 3, crocheting in Grade 5, and hand-sewing in Grade 6 – skills she used to make her own clothes in the Second World War and for her kids in the years that followed.

“That’s what you did. You knitted presents for babies. Instead of going and buying them, you knit.”

Gifts from the heart

The association’s gift shop pulls in about $100 a day from sales of these and other goods made by local seniors, Debenham said.

“They’re made from the heart,” she said of the gifts, often inexpensive.

Cenek and Lane extolled the virtues of their hand-made goods, saying that they were warmer, more durable and longer-lasting than today’s store-bought fare. Making these crafts also gives them a chance to get together and socialize.

“It saves my day,” Cenek said.

“When I get very excited about something, I pick up a pair of needles and a ball of wool and start knitting.”

Lane said he and his fellow elves are working to upgrade the association’s wood-shop so more people can work at once.

“It’s a labour of love for us,” he said of their efforts.

“There’s nothing more satisfying than to take a piece of wood and create a nice birdhouse for example, or to create a nice little stool for a kid, and see the joy of a kid who’s got a fresh new stool.”

The association’s gift shop is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays at Red Willow Place.

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Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.