Former CBC host honoured for charity readings of A Christmas Carol

More than 25 years after Judy Maddren staged her first charity reading of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the former CBC announcer is being honoured by the Governor General for starting the popular Canadian holiday season tradition.

“You can’t do anything in this life if you’re looking for a reward,” Maddren told CBC News from Ottawa Thursday night. “If it gives you joy and pleasure and fills your heart, that’s what fuels it.”

Maddren was among the 45 recipients from across the country being presented with Meritorious Service Decorations by Governor General David Johnston in Ottawa Friday morning.

The honour recognizes individuals who “make Canada proud” with activities or deeds that “are often innovative, set an example or model for others to follow, or respond to a particular challenge faced by a community.”

Nominees are submitted by the public and reviewed by an advisory committee and the Governor General.

Maddren, who retired from the CBC in 2009, is receiving a Meritorious Service Medal for founding the annual readings — which began with her in Toronto in 1990, grew to encompass readings across the country and, over the years, have raised in excess of $5 million for a wide range of charities and community organizations.

A winter getaway with her family in 1989 is where the idea of the readings first popped into Maddren’s head. While her husband tidied up after dinner, she entertained their four children by reading A Christmas Carol.

Readings for adults

She soon noticed that her husband kept sneaking out from the kitchen to take in the beloved tale as well. It dawned on her that after childhood, we don’t often get to hearing a story read aloud to us, so wouldn’t it be a treat to offer a special dramatic reading for adults?

“I deeply believed in it,” she recalled. “Reading aloud to adults is something everyone would love. I thought it would be wonderful.”

The following year, with the help of her family, some friends and volunteers, Maddren staged her first public A Christmas Carol reading — with a version of the story Dickens had shortened himself — in a rented church space, complete with special lighting, a choir accompaniment and funds to support a local women’s shelter.

Well-received, that first evening snowballed into an initiative that eventually expanded across Canada, thanks to the former host of CBC Radio’s flagship newscast World Report and a CBC-funded co-ordinator.

“At its height, there were 140 productions happening across the country, designed for every community,” Maddren said, adding that organizers adapted and “put their own stamp” on each event.

“I learned what CBC means to people across the country and how essential it is to being a Canadian.”

Maddren, who called receiving the Meritorious Service Medal “mindblowing” and “overwhelming,” feels that hearing Dickens’s classic story again continues to resonate with people.

“Scrooge changed and that is hope for all of us — that we can change and be a better person for the world. It is an example of what can happen.”

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