Santa Claus greets guests during the 13th annual Central Maine Family Christmas Dinner at the Elk’s Lodge in Waterville on Dec. 25, 2019. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel file

WATERVILLE — After 14-straight years of offering a free holiday meal and fellowship to people and families across the region, the landmark Central Maine Family Christmas Dinner won’t be happening this year because of the coronavirus pandemic and fundraising challenges.

Traditionally held at Elks Lodge 905 in Waterville on Christmas Day, the turkey dinner typically feeds between 800 and 1,000 people. The decision to cancel the dinner was made in early November, organizers said, but volunteers are planning for a full-fledged return in 2021.

“We have every intention to be back next year,” Susan Spencer, vice president of the dinner’s board of directors, said in a phone interview Tuesday. “We’re already talking about fundraising for next year to ensure we have enough money and try to find some alternatives if we can’t do it at the Elks.”

Founded in 2007 by Albion residents Norman “Ziggy” and Kimberley Lawrence, the Central Maine Family Christmas Dinner was created to ensure no one spends Christmas alone.

With indoor gathering limits of no more than 50 people in place, though, organizers said hosting the dinner this year would be impossible. The volunteer corps alone is three-times the size of the gathering limit.

The turkey dinner has been served annually from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Christmas Day. There have also been sleigh rides, giveaways, visits with Santa Claus and other forms of entertainment.

Organizers considered offering takeout meals instead of a sit-down gathering but felt it did not encourage the same sense of community. They also considered delivery, but drivers would be separated from their families during those hours — the antithesis of the dinner’s purpose.

“We felt that was in opposition to what our mission is,” Spencer said. “The whole idea is that people spend Christmas together, it clashes with our mission.

Fundraising for the dinner, which Spencer said costs around $12,000 each year, occurs in the spring. Organizers had trouble securing donations due to the pandemic. It wasn’t that businesses were less inclined to donate this year due to any financial troubles, they just weren’t open for dinner representatives to introduce themselves and solicit support.

“Everybody was kind of on lockdown,” Spencer said. “Nobody knew what was going to happen with this.”

“By the time we were going to go out and do fundraising and you could go to businesses and talk to people, we had decided that we can’t do it with 50 people in the building. It defeats the purpose,” Spencer added. “We’d have to do it all day.”

The entire cost of the dinner is paid for by donations. Mostly small businesses lend their support, but individuals and families donate to the dinner as well. There are around 100 consistent annual sponsors to go with the 150 volunteers.

“All of our sponsors come every year. They pretty much give the same donation every single year,” Spencer said. “We have some that are consistently $500, $250, $100; it’s a small amount to get to the $12,000, but it all adds up.”

Spencer, who has been involved with the dinner for 12 years, said the organizers and volunteers will miss the dinner as much as the patrons. She and her children have been volunteering for over a decade and many families do the same.

“We are planning to be back next year as long as COVID allows us,” Spencer said. “It really has been heartbreaking for us to not put this on this year, and a lot of us now don’t know what to do with our Christmas. It’s very strange and surreal to not be doing this.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.