WASILLA - There's nothing like hanging out with the A List crowd, and on Christmas, there's only one name on that exclusive list - Santa. Winding down from a night traversing the world, the Jolly Old Elf will find himself at his usual hangout, the Christmas Friendship Dinner.
In the days leading up to the big day, Santa's troupe of Valley elves have been busy as spring beavers decorating the Curtis D. Menard Memorial Sports Center and cooking up more than 80 turkeys and 500 pounds of ham.
And for one of the hundreds of Christmas Friendship Dinner volunteers, the event is more than an exercise in fellowship; it's a lifeline to a new family.
"My husband died this year and I need to be very busy," said Wanda Thomas, who was busy Friday afternoon helping coordinate decorating efforts. "It's the right thing to do and it's easy to be uplifted here. It fills all of the emptiness for me. It is special, and I happen to be unemployed and ... this has been my blessing to be here. Every day it's lifted me up higher and higher and higher."
That's what keeps longtime organizers coming back, said Christmas Friendship Dinner Committee chair Elsie O'Bryan. O'Bryan has been involved with the dinner for 19 of its 20 years.
"I've been doing it for 19 years now," she said. "That first year, I just went to have someplace to go. With the exception of one year, I've been here every year. This is what I do. I don't do Christmas cards, I don't do gifts, this is what I do, this is my Christmas."
Last year, the dinner served 2,500 people at the Menard and delivered another 300 meals, O'Bryan said. This year, the plan is to have enough food to feed 3,000. The annual celebration has evolved beyond what even the event's founders could have imagined, she said.
"We were talking about that yesterday," O'Bryan said. "There's no way anyone could've foreseen all this."
She also can't imagine the Christmas Friendship Dinner without Bob and Judy Bowers. Bob has been cooking and Judy decorating since its modest beginnings with six turkeys at the senior center. The dinner outgrew the senior center quickly and moved to Wasilla High School, but outgrew that space as well. This will be its third year at the Menard.
Asked if he could've imagined how the dinner would grow over the years, Bowers said no way.
"Ain't no way, no possible way, not a chance in ... uh, Fairbanks," he said. "If I'm gone and all they can say is Bob's the guy who did the dinner, that's good enough. I ain't done nothing else with my life, this is the only thing I've done that's worthwhile."
Although he's had two heart attacks and has had to help delegate some of the cooking duties to other volunteers, don't suggest he stay home one Christmas.
"What would it take for me not to be here?" Bowers said. "For the Lord to call me home."
For Brad Whitworth, pastor at Big Lake Baptist Church, the Christmas Friendship Dinner is as much about feeding the soul as the belly.
"They go hand-in-hand," he said. "We are a complete being, whether it's the physical body or the spirit. What good is it if people are lacking and hungry and don't have a warm fellowship atmosphere? Here, it's a blessing all the way around."
That's the point, O'Bryan said.
"Our philosophy is there are different kinds of needs," she said. "There are financial needs, there are hunger needs, there are spiritual needs, emotional needs. ... This is a Christmas Friendship Dinner, and oh, by the way, we also have food. It's a lot more than just putting food on a plate."
This year's event will also be special because organizers will recognize one of its founders, Harold Newcomb, O'Bryan said. She also said the group is trying to recruit younger volunteers who can keep the legacy of the dinner going.
While the event has grown over the years to include Santa giving presents to children and performances by musical groups and churches, the heart and soul of the dinner is still the food, she said. In 20 years, nobody has gone home hungry.
"We've never run out of food, but we did have one year where all we had left was one turkey wing," O'Bryan said. "We survived on a wing and a prayer that year."
Contact Greg Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 352-2269.