I’ve been spending the last week at the Ottawa City Hall, decorating for The Mayor’s Christmas Party. The Mayor’s Christmas Party is a huge annual event attracting 5000 – 6000 Ottawans to meet Santa, have their faces painted, nibble chocolate treats from Mrs. Claus, make crafts, skate on the rink, roast marshmellows and quaff endless cups of hot chocolate. It’s a big event and my friend Sarah Waghorn of Pukeko Design has the contract to design it.
I know Sarah from Ottawa theatre circles. Designing the Mayor’s Christmas Party is like doing a theatre show except that it’s a huge set filled with audience, workers, performers and thousands of details. We are working to a tight, inflexible deadline and everything has to follow an exact plan. Sarah has hired a team of us, mostly from the theatre community, to decorate and perform elfish duties on the day. Lewis Wynne-Jones has joined us so we really are a family team, a dedicated bunch who take pride in our work. We are under the domain of the Office of Protocol and happy to be their minions for the next seven days.
Who says the city doesn’t support the arts?
We met on the first day in a low section of the stone basement in City Hall. There was a long hallway containing at least 50 boxes of new ornaments for us to sort through. I squatted on the floor so as not to spend the day bent over, wearing a Pukeko apron and bright green gardening gloves. I was soon covered in sparkles from the coloured balls. We became a team immediately recognizable by our sparkly faces, sparkles that were embedded in our skin for the whole of the next week.
Our work hallway led to a tree storage room. A whole room filled with artificial Christmas trees. There was also a secure room accessible only by swipe key filled with all of the kinds of things needed for special events – shelves of Maple syrup (protocol gifts), vases, cake platters, tables cloths, signs, Halloween ornaments, Kahlua (?) and cranberry juice. There were boxes of miniature flags, one box for every country in the world it seems, except for China for which there were 8 boxes. It is in this secure room that we unpacked the special ornaments and exquisite fake cakes for the “set” of Mrs. Claus’ bakery.
We’re a great team and for the first while we swapped theatre gossip and family Christmas stories. We spent two days listening to carols before we gave up trying to connect our tasks to Christmas cheer. By day 3, we were spending hours in silence and small decisions (what colour next?), as we perfected each tree. Over the course of 4 days, we carried, fluffed and decorated 30 trees of varying sizes. My arms became shredded by plastic pine needles as I wove strands of lights and looped 200 coloured balls onto each tree.
After trees, we spent days affixing garland on bannisters, wrapping over 300 boxes for presents, changing the hangers on 50 large ornaments (gold cord is all wrong), changing the orientation of 200 ornaments (they don’t work hanging vertically, they should be horizontal), re-wiring garlands, setting out all of the trees and finding places to plug them in. It was backbreaking and leg exhausting as we crisscrossed the building and work on concrete floors.
I found myself in a contemplative mood and headed out on a lunch break, to clear my mind in the crisp December air. Beside City Hall is the Canadian Tribute to Human Rights, a monument that I have seen for years but never really looked at. Designed by Montreal artist Melvin Charney, the sculpture incorporates the first sentence of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights – Tous les êtres humains naissent libres et egaux en dignité et en droits.” The words “Equality”, “Dignity” and “Rights” are repeated in English and French across the top of the monument. These words are then repeated on individual plaques in the 73 languages of Canada’s First Nations.
The Canadian Tribute to Human Rights was inspired by the Polish worker’s solidarity strikes in the 1980’s and is dedicated to the struggle for fundamental human rights and freedoms. Algonquin elder William Commanda ceremonially introduced it in 1990, followed by an official unveiling by the Dalai Lama. Since then, the monument has been the focal point for a wide range of demonstrations drawing awareness to human rights issues.
The monument sits on Algonquin land, as does City Hall. Before returning to work, I took a moment to walk through the simple and unadorned archway, grateful to have the freedom to do so, grateful to be working with a dedicated, sparkly team on a common, happy, goal.