WATERVILLE — Music, Christmas cheer and three-quarters of a ton of food were all on hand at the Elks lodge for Christmas, as nearly a thousand people gathered to celebrate the holiday.
A swarm of volunteers kept busy in the parking lot, visitors were likely to be wished a merry Christmas six or seven times in a row as their cars were parked valet-style, doors were held open and seating was found among the hundreds of diners at the long rows of tables.
Inside, the mood among the attendees was jovial, with frequent handshakes or hugs.
“I tried to get a beer, but they don’t got any!” a large man seated at one table joked, his voice clear above the din of a thousand exchanged pleasantries.
In the kitchen, volunteers stood literally hip to hip as they churned out plate after plate of steaming food. Despite the close quarters and the frantic pace, spirits seemed high.
Each plate was heaped full, but represented only the tiniest fraction of the food, which included 400 pounds of turkey breast, 350 pounds of mashed potatoes, 200 pounds each of peas and squash and 300 pounds of stuffing, all topped by 12 gallons of gravy and 78 pounds of cranberry sauce.
Richard Dionne, who has been overseeing the kitchen for the six years the dinner has been held, said that 500 plates had been served by noon. The staff was prepared to feed at least another 500 before the three-hour event was over.
The plates were loaded onto platters and hurried out to the banquet hall, which was crowded with volunteers wearing red and green helping people to be seated or served.
Other tables stood ready with hundreds of dessert plates that included cookies, cakes, pies and brownies.
Norman Lawrence, who founded the Central Maine Family Christmas Dinner, said that there was almost a critical shortage of sweets, which are usually brought in by individuals and groups.
“A lot of the desserts were just not showing up last night,” he said. The problem was solved when the people at the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter, who also planned to attend the dinner, volunteered to bring a large number of excess desserts which had been donated to the shelter.
Lawrence said that the last-minute solution is the kind of thing that he’s come to expect.
“He’s got it under control,” he said, jabbing a finger skyward.
Lawrence admitted to losing sleep over the details for the event, which has grown significantly over the past six years, from fewer than 300 to an expected 1,000 attendees.
As in “The Christmas Song,” the kids in attendance ranged in age from one to 92, all of whom applauded at the arrival of Santa Claus. Santa held court in one corner of the room, where he spent time and took pictures with each child, after which assistants handed out stockings filled with small presents.
“We’ve come for the last few years,” said Beth Sylvester, a resident of Benton who waited in line with her son to see Santa. “Our family has gotten so big and spread out that it’s difficult to get everyone together. So a few of us come here instead.”
Larry and Noella Plourde, of Winslow, who have been married for 52 years, said that they expected a visit from their daughter on the day after Christmas but they had no one to share the actual holiday with.
They gave the event their enthusiastic stamp of approval.
“Someone parked my car for me,” she said, holding up her plate. “And look at how much food. Holy mackerel!”
Other elements that added a festive flavor to the proceedings included the presence of a horse-drawn wagon, which gave free hayrides and Christmas-themed music.
Lawrence said that the purpose of the dinner is to bring the community together and to ensure that “no one has to spend Christmas alone.”
Partners for the dinner include 15 area churches, the Waterville Elks, the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter, corporate sponsors, individual donations, soup kitchens and the Salvation Army. The Central Maine Family Christmas Dinner spends about $7,000, raised through donations, to put on the event each year.
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287