Neil Denton wants to make one thing clear about his church’s Christmas Day Dinner: “It had nothing to do with Meals on Wheels,” he says. “People tend to think that. The legend has changed.”
After nineteen years, three venues, and thousands of meals, the holiday tradition at the Unitarian Universalist Community Church of Hendricks County in Danville, Indiana, has attracted enough volunteers to imbue it with impressive momentum—and to give its origin myth a life of its own.
Legends aside, Denton has volunteered regularly for Meals on Wheels since retiring years ago. But Christmas Day Dinner, he states emphatically, was entirely his wife Marcia’s idea.
When the couple moved to Hendricks County in 1994, “we left our four adult children in California,” Marcia Denton says. “We needed to find something to do our first holiday season.” They volunteered at a free Christmas Day dinner the next county over. Those who would otherwise be without Christmas dinner could request a free meal, delivered to their home or available onsite. At each stop, delivery volunteers stayed to provide company and conversation.
Before long, she realized that while Hendricks County residents in need could find a free Thanksgiving meal, nothing comparable filled the Christmas dinner void.
In 1997 she floated the Christmas Day Dinner idea to the UU Community Church of Hendricks County with little hope that they would agree. Her congregation had bought the old Presbyterian church in Danville just the year before. They’d only become an official UU congregation that year. And at just twenty-something members, they were a tiny group. “I was pretty astonished that they agreed to back this venture,” she says. The Dentons would lead the event for a decade.
The first year, congregants cooked and served between thirty and fifty meals. “Our church kitchen is as big as a home kitchen,” she says. Luckily the restaurant next door, closed for the holiday, let the church use its kitchen. The meal was on.
UU Community Church’s Christmas Day Dinner immediately introduced a twist on similar meals: once the drivers returned, they and the other volunteers could eat with dine-in clients. At the other dinners, “It always seemed sad to me that the people would come in to eat, but they would still sit there by themselves,” she explains.
The event blossomed. Families with children signed up for the dinner, and the congregation included a gift with every child’s meal. Church members Deanna Carman and Faye Ferrell formed a toy crew to make sure there was a toy for each child. On a Sunday in December, congregants gathered after church to wrap all the gifts.
As the dinner grew so did the congregation, but with a membership that hovered around eighty, it wasn’t enough to support the Christmas meal demand. “As it grew,” Ferrell says, “we started looking for [community] volunteers.”
By the time the recession hit in 2008, organizers had a routine at the Hendricks County Fairgrounds, whose industrial kitchen and two large halls accommodated the church’s growing culinary brigade. That year, volunteers cooked and delivered roughly 250 dinners. The buffet served several dozen. Seventy-nine children received toys.
Delivered meals rose to more than 500 in 2009, when “we started delivering to homes in more affluent places,” says past Christmas Day Dinner chair Rosie Blankenship. That jump mirrored Hendricks County’s rise in unemployment from 5.9 percent in 2008 to 8.5 percent in 2009. More food went out, but with growing pains. “Everything was late that year,” Blankenship recalls.
Demand for the dinner rose for a few years, peaking in 2012 with 662 delivered meals. “It’s grown a lot, and we’ve had to adjust,” says Community Church founding member Jim Ferrell, who has led Christmas Day Dinner food procurement and preparation for years. “In the early days, we were just winging it.” He has since developed a detailed spreadsheet to help manage it all.
In 2014, the church adjusted again with a new approach to children’s gifts. The toy crew now turns the fellowship hall into a pop-up toy emporium known as Santa’s Workshop. The congregation then invites parents to choose gifts for their own children.
Clients select presents using a dot-based budget system. “We have tried to make it as fair as possible,” Carman says. Parents walk away with new or gently used donated gifts, plus wrapping paper and tape. “It has been so helpful to have the parents there, because they know their child better than anyone,” she says.
After weeks of posting fliers, collecting toys, fundraising, and recruiting volunteers, the cooking begins December 24. The vibe is festive. “You have your group in the kitchen that’s immediately doing prep work,” past Christmas Day Dinner chair Pat Pollack says. They cook turkey, cut up ham, sauté onions, open cans of fruit cocktail, and store it in the freezer overnight. Most congregants help, return home for a break between 3:30 and 5:30 p.m., and then head to the Christmas Eve service.
Early the next morning, the kitchen teems with the energy of about 100 people (only half of them from the church). Christmas music plays. Trays slide into ovens. Volunteers set up serving lines according to a detailed diagram. Sometimes things go awry. One year, the Christmas Eve crew forgot to drain the liquid before putting the fruit cocktail into the freezer, creating “a frozen solid block” of tropical fruit, says Jim Ferrell.
As drivers walk into the hall and head out laden with meals, preparation for the dine-in buffet begins in the kitchen. When the buffet opens, drivers, cooks, servers, and dine-in clients sit down together to eat. “People think, ‘you’re just servicing people who don’t have the means,’” says Pollack, “but it’s also people without the companionship.”
Companionship, whether while chopping celery or decorating the halls, has nurtured a shift in Hendricks County over the years. “Hendricks County is very Republican, not very open to new things,” says Carman. “[Christmas Day Dinner] has made the area aware of Unitarian Universalism. It has brought positive attention to us.”
And the congregation couldn’t have continued the Christmas Day Dinner tradition without the community’s help. “It didn’t matter that our religious views were different and that our politics were very different,” says Faye Ferrell. “I was warmed by standing side by side with them serving the meal.” Eating together at the buffet, Marcia Denton says, “gave people from the community the opportunity to talk with people from the UU church.”
As the community learned about UUs, congregants uncovered truths about their county. “When you look around, you don’t see poverty, ever,” Blankenship says. “I didn’t anticipate seeing the extreme of it. That was eye-opening, to see how much poverty was hiding in our area.”
That need comes across clearly over the phone, one option for reserving dinners or gifts. “It’s hard,” Pollack says. “It’s truly hard; it’s the heart of what we do.” Residents reach out for meals, for information, for help, turning the church into a de facto holiday assistance hotline.
The UU Community Church remains a small congregation that, cactus-like, survives in its sometimes inhospitable environment—an environment rendered more favorable by its presence and deeds. “The simple nature of Christmas Day Dinner,” Pollack explains, is that “folks walk away with that feeling, ‘I’m so glad I helped.’”
From answering phones to mixing stuffing, it took nearly 190 people to pull off the dinner and Santa’s Workshop last year. “It’s a tremendous amount of work,” Pollack says.
Nonetheless, Christmas Day Dinner isn’t just another item to check off one’s holiday to-do list: “It’s just what you do Christmas day,” explains Neil Denton.
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