Q&A: Everyone welcome at Christmas Feast

Even after three years, Bruce Haas, the project manager of the Marietta Christmas Day Feast, still has members of the community saying “I’m not a member of the church. Can I come anyway?”

The answer is always yes, as the free meal at the First Presbyterian Church is open to the entire community. Put on by several churches and many volunteers, this Dec. 25 will be the fourth feast. Leftovers go to the Gospel Mission Food Pantry, so nothing goes to waste.

The menu includes traditional holiday fare like ham and turkey, along with some twists to popular dishes.

“One year we had a volunteer take frozen hot dog buns, juice and stock from the turkey, boil it, cut up celery and onions and throw it in the oven,” Haas said. “Everyone was raving at how wonderful the stuffing was. It was a big hit.”

An even bigger surprise for those who take part has been just how many people needed somewhere special to go on Christmas Day.

Question: Have you seen this event grow a lot since it began?

Answer: Oh, my. The first time we planned for 50 people and served 150. The second year we upped it and had 300-something and then last year we had a little over 550. So this year, with no reason to believe the trend won’t continue, we forecast 700. We have additional volunteers and we’ve ramped up delivery service and added tables. Last year at the last minute we had to set up four extra tables going right up next to the serving line. It’s all good. We always manage to take care of everyone who comes in or calls. It’s amazing.

Q: Are you surprised that so many people in Marietta need or want an event like this to go to on a holiday?

A: Oh, yeah. The first year we just hoped to have a showing so people that showed up wouldn’t think they were the only ones in town. We try to make it very nice to come in. There’s live music from the Puls Family String Trio while they’re eating. It’s like something out of a Colonial-era movie or something. We decorate the tables nicely with poinsettias and bowls of candy, fruit and nuts. We now work with the Workingman’s Store and WMOA, which does the Christmas Zoo, and they buy all the desserts for us. Since they collect stuffed animals, we get a portion. So we put those on the tables and the kids and the old folks who come just love them.

Q: How many volunteers are needed to full off something of this scale?

A: By the time we add in the cooks behind the scenes and the delivery people, probably close to 40. The day of, all the teams will be there from kitchen to delivery, and the potato peelers are there working the day before.

Q: Do you still need some people to help?

A: We still need some folks to be drivers. We like to have that in pairs, so one can drive and one can navigate. We do some special dishes for the indoor dinner like casseroles, cakes, cookies, stuffing, things like that and we could use some more cooks to prepare that and bring it in.

We always think about adding something Christmasy each year to the meal and the bags and we’ve been thinking about Christmas cards. But 700 is hard to do. So, that’s on our list of things to try.

Q: What’s it like for you to spend your Christmas there– rewarding, fun, exhausting?

A: All of the above. It just does so fast. We never sit down. Most of us are there by 7:30 a.m. and we’ve got a pretty tight schedule.

Q: Is the food pretty delicious?

A: It’s really something else. We have some things you wouldn’t expect for a Christmas dinner, like chili, beef and vegetable soup, chicken noodle soup. Those go over so well. People bring in fruit cobbler, asparagus and cheese casseroles…the mashed potatoes are made from scratch with real butter and whole milk and they’re wonderful. Our goal is to make it very nice and special. We don’t serve on paper plates with plastic utensils. We use the church’s best china and silverware, glasses and mugs. Usually we have some teenagers show up and they are the waitresses and waiters, especially for the older folks who can’t get up as easily to get what they need.

Q: Do a lot of people stay to socialize after eating?

A: Every year it seems people come earlier and earlier. We used to assume if they showed up early, they were there for carryout but last year by 8 we had tables of people having a cookie, a cup of coffee, making new friends, chitchatting. We start serving at 1 and usually people are done eating by 2 but they don’t leave until 3 or so.

Q: Do you think having this dinner gives something for people to look forward to on the holiday?

A: That was the original idea, and we hope that it does.

Kate York conducted this interview.