Make a Joyful Noise: Simpson’s Staff Choir

Front of Simpson's Carol Sheet, 1937
The holidays are all about tradition and what makes traditions powerful is their familiarity. It is what we do repeatedly, year after year – be it decorating, cooking, visiting or entertaining – that forms the basis of our personal traditions and helps enrich our appreciation of the season. Stores have traditions, too. And for many people these are as much a part of the holidays as their own.

Music is an integral part of the festive season. So it’s not surprising to learn that the tradition of carol singing in store has a long history. In Toronto, Simpsons launched its Staff Choir in 1924, just in time for the holidays. More than 50 years later the choir had become an annual fixture, and not only in store. Thanks to its popularity the choir was broadcast on radio as early as 1937. When the following press release was issued in December, 1947, its reputation had spread far and wide.

From: Publicity Department, The Robert Simpson Co. Ltd., Toronto, Ontario

For Release: December 1947

Front of Simpson's Carol Sheet, ca 1948
Thursday, December 18th marks the date when Simpson’s four-part staff choir begins its traditional, annual carol singing. For it has become a tradition, and this year marks the 23rd anniversary of this most unusual choir. Composed of 200 Simpson men and women, the choir gathers on the street floor at 9:10 each morning from now until Christmas to lead the large crowd that congregates in 20-minute carol singing. The choir is conducted by Mr. John Weatherseed, noted organist and choir leader and is accompanied by the Harmony Quartette of the 48th Highlanders Band. 

Thursday, December 18th also marks another anniversary. Ten years ago at this time, the choir made its first radio broadcast. Since then, for twenty minutes each morning, the beautiful spirit of the carols and this music of hundreds of voices have been carried over seven Ontario radio stations. But the melodic strains have travelled far beyond the boundaries of Ontario. Letters of appreciation have come from all parts of Canada, the United States and far away spots in South America.

Advertisement for Simpson’s Christmas carol singing, 1949

One of the most interesting stories comes from Albany, New York. Four years ago, in the midst of a heavy snow storm, a number of very disgruntled passengers had gathered in the office of the local cab company to await the cars that carried them each morning to offices in New York. Drivers and cars were delayed everywhere by the bad weather and deep snow drifts.

Tempers were growing shorter. Time was hanging heavy. Making an attempt to distract his angry customers, the manager turned on the radio, and chanced to pick up the Simpson broadcast. Soon the frowns disappeared, to be replaced by smiles. One or two men and women began to hum the carols, until finally all were singing along with the assembly in the Toronto store.  From that moment on, until Christmas day, it became almost ritual for all the commuters to gather in the little office to sing carols each morning before starting a day of work.

The Simpson caroling custom has grown in popularity with the passing years. By the time the carol singing is over for this season, between 150,000, and 200,000 copies of the sheets will have been distributed to churches, schools, clubs and hospitals – all who want to join in this truly community singing.

Christmas carol singers, Simpson’s Queen St., 1951. HBCA I-189-SIM

Front of Simpson’s Christmas carol sheet, 1972
The 1947 broadcasts were carried live by radio stations in Toronto, Brockville, Sudbury, Hamilton, Sarnia, Wingham and Stratford, ensuring that the choir was well-known across Ontario and beyond. In addition to official choir members themselves, all associates were welcome to attend the morning sing-along. This annual tradition “really put you in the Christmas spirit”, according to one former Simpsons employee.

The Simpson Staff Choir lasted well into the 1980s and is still fondly remembered today. Maybe this is another of those good ideas that’s due for a second look?