WASILLA - It started 20 years ago with a few donated turkeys and an idea.
The turkeys came into the hands of Harold Newcomb, who brought his idea to local restaurateur Bob Bowers.
"Harold Newcomb got these turkeys, and he was the original guy who asked me to cook them up," Bowers said Sunday after finishing the cooking for the 20th annual Christmas Friendship Dinner. "It all started because of Harold. When I was walking through the restaurant he said, ‘Hey, somebody gave us six turkeys. I'm thinking about cooking these turkeys off over at the senior center and feeding some people.' So, I showed up on Christmas Day and cooked the turkeys and made some dinner rolls and stuff."
That was two decades ago when the dinner fed 90 people, Bowers said. This year, the event fed an estimated 2,850 - a record - including about 300 delivered meals. Volunteers started cooking the more than 80 turkeys and 500 pounds of ham days in advance, and an efficient pair of steam tables kept the food hot for the hungry revelers at the Curtis D. Menard Memorial Sports Center.
"It's so amazing," said Bob's wife Judy Bowers, who's in charge of decorating the place. "The Lord has blessed us greatly, he really has."
Along with those blessings came a big thumbs-up from Santa Claus himself, who again capped his Christmas Eve globetrotting at the dinner. In fact, he had some company this year. About halfway through the event, no fewer than seven Kris Kringle look-alikes were in attendance.
Ned Entwisle, with his long, white beard and festive red hat, was one. Entwisle admits he's not the "real" Santa Claus, but said he'd be drummed out of the fraternity if he told who is.
"I'm not telling," he said. "It's not me, I know that."
But that doesn't stop children from coming up to him and giving him their Christmas lists.
"I love that," he said. "Kids in the stores come up to me and tell me what they want for Christmas."
And it is not just kids, apparently. At Sunday's dinner, he was observed leaning down to talk with 94-year-old volunteer Mary Hall.
What did Hall ask of "Santa?"
"I just told him I've been good for too long and I want to be bad," Hall said.
"Well, I look for the bad girls, too," Entwisle quipped back.
Kurt Jarmar was still wearing his apron while enjoying a bite to eat with his family, including his 3-month-old great-grandson, Vincent Alexander. Jarmar has been cooking for the event for 12 years and said the happy crowds on Christmas makes each worthwhile.
"Watching people enjoy themselves for the holiday and feeding someone who wouldn't have had a meal, that's special," Jarmar said.
A point of pride for Christmas Friendship Dinner organizers is that no matter how large the event has grown, they've never run out of food. The closest they came was one year when all that was left was a turkey wing.
Mat-Su Borough Mayor Larry DeVilbiss seized on the opportunity to help some of his neighbors on Christmas.
"I took a family to church today and they didn't have any Christmas lunch or anything, so I said, ‘Let's go to the Christmas dinner, that's exactly what it's for,'" he said. "I donated the carrots this year. I think it's awesome that we can all drop our differences for the day. In fact, one of the guys who's making the dinner was running against me for mayor this last time."
While thinking of others is what the holiday spirit is about, DeVilbiss said he wasn't forgotten by the Jolly Old Elf this year.
"Santa brought me an assembly that I'm very happy with, an assembly that will approve my planning commissioners," he said. "It remains to be seen what they'll do with my budget."
Although Newcomb was unable to attend this year's celebration, there were plenty of reminders throughout the afternoon that his vision hasn't been forgotten, organizer Elsie O'Bryan said.
"Any good thing is an idea acted upon," she said. "Somebody gave him a turkey, and he acted upon it."
Nicole Krus of Palmer chose this year to make her first visit to the dinner, with daughters Anna, 5, and Chelsea, 3.
"It's a lot different than what I thought it would be," she said. "It's so organized."
The girls happily clutched presents they received from Santa (the real one sitting in his chair in the back of the room) and "have been excited for a week" about Christmas, Krus said.
As the former owners of Mat-Su Family Restaurant, Bob and Judy Bowers said all the hard work that goes into cooking for thousands is worth every minute of planning and work that goes into the annual community feast.
"This is a hundred times better than last year," Bob said. "It just gets better and better every year. Oh, man, I wouldn't have it any other way. ... This is fun, the restaurant is work."
Fellowship and love is the message of the Christmas Friendship Dinner, said emcee John Klapperich, who also loudly declared his belief in the importance of the season.
"The Lord is alive and well and the spirit is alive and well," he said. "From Glennallen to Willow to Eagle River, this place is robust with love and life."
No matter how large the dinner grows, Jarmar said he's confident there will always be enough to feed all.
"We don't ever run out of food," he said. "We just run out of faith."
Contact Greg Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 352-2269.