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.