A Christmas feast for the spirit

There was no merrier place in San Benito County on Wednesday
than at the O’Reilly Youth Center where volunteers served hundreds
of people at Marley Holte’s 18th annual Christmas Community
Dinner.
There was no merrier place in San Benito County on Wednesday than at the O’Reilly Youth Center where volunteers served hundreds of people at Marley Holte’s 18th annual Christmas Community Dinner.

From the kitchen where veteran volunteers like Larry Brown, Ron Rodrigues and Rudy and June Stampli sliced turkeys, mashed potatoes and made stuffing, to tables outside where others like Ruben Lopez and Anne Winn minced garlic for salsa, the laughter was continual.

“We have a good time doing this,” Holte said. “We started with about six volunteers on Christmas Day of 1985 at the Hollister Community Center and the number has grown so much over the years that we’ve taken to assigning them by schedule so everyone who wants to help has the opportunity to do so.”

The Thanksgiving dinner was added about three years later.

Holte could not explain why the number of guests decreased from previous years of 800 or so to about 650 on Wednesday.

“I know the need is still there, but regardless of how many attend we want them to have an ample meal.”

From the first dinner, the sole criterion of attendance has been that the people want to be there. Even those who can afford a meal but who are alone at Christmas have been welcome.

The merriment was increased by the appearance of Santa Claus (a close friend of Bob Bouchard) and songs by Johnny Gi-Tar, the stage name of John Guiterrez, who accompanied himself on the guitar.

Santa Claus gave out about 150 gifts to young children. Each was a new toy and was coded on the wrapping to make sure it was appropriate for age and gender.

“It’s just another instance of the community coming through with donations of gifts or money to buy them,” Holte said.

The sight of awe-struck children approaching Santa made many laugh fondly as they recalled their own childhood Christmases.

About 120 meals were either delivered to people who could not attend or were taken to them by guests. One hundred grocery bags containing a frozen chicken, rice, beans, fruit and candy were also taken home, as were 100 bags of oranges.

Holte said 25 volunteers showed up on Christmas Eve to prepare the turkeys for the following day, and on Wednesday morning more arrived early to roast the turkeys, boil and mash potatoes, heat corn and open cans of cranberries. Local Girl Scout troops supplied pies.

Volunteers got into the spirit of the day and went from table to table, each with a component of the meal to serve the guests, then to refill and go out again. The majority of servers were teen-agers and some wore elves’ caps or other holiday garb.

Following the meal, volunteers cleared the tables, cleaned the hall and washed every pot, pan and utensil before going home for their own Christmas celebration.

“It requires a lot of planning and work,” Holte said, “but each meal has been worth the effort put forth.”

Holte evaded the spotlight by giving credit for the event’s continued success to the public.

“It’s not important who started it. What is important is that the public is very caring and that’s what has made it continue,” he said. “I could not begin to fully thank the merchants and private citizens who donate food and money or the folks who show up year after year to pitch in and help make it a success each time.

“It’s been said before but I’ll say it again: The dinner is a feast for the spirit as well as the body.”

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