John Hagen recalls a visit he and his wife Jean got seven years ago from West Prince businessman, Preston Murphy.
Murphy and his family wanted to organize a free Christmas Day meal, and he knew the Hagens had, while living in Ontario, volunteered at a soup kitchen that put on a big Christmas Day spread.
“We didn’t know what would happen that first year,” Hagen said, adding that even the 50 or so who showed up for the meal that year were unsure.
But they know now.
As the meal heads into its eighth Christmas, Murphy describes it as a runaway train to which he has no intentions of applying the brakes.
“We’re going to have it as long as people want to have it,” he said. “It’s getting bigger every year.”
It’s possible, Murphy said, because many people pitch in to help. Forty-two people showed up at St. Anthony’s Hall last Christmas Eve to help wash, peel and prepare vegetables, a jovial gathering that lasted from 9 a.m. until noon. The turn-out of volunteers was just as large for the Christmas Day meal.
Turkeys, hams, salt fish and baked beans were cooked in volunteers’ homes and brought to the hall.
Murphy said he’s never worried about running out of food because, with everyone pitching in, there’s always more than enough. The desserts, for instance, just seem to show up.
“We don’t ask for anything; if people want to donate, we accept it. That’s the policy,” Murphy said. Last year’s food offerings were served and the monetary donations were re-distributed, $900 each, to the St. Anthony’s Christmas Hampers Program and the West Prince Caring Cupboard. Donations this year will go to the St. Anthony’s Church Restoration Fund.
The Christmas Day meal is a community event, open to anyone, not just for people in need of a meal. While the majority of attendees are pensioners, the ages have ranged from preschool to 101.
“We don’t care if they’re millionaires: come with us for dinner,” Murphy emphasized.
“It’s the true meaning of Christmas: Bringing family and friends together,” Judy Peters expressed.
The meal fills a social need, Jean Hagen explained. “If we didn’t have here to come, what would we do?” she reflected.
“One woman said, even if she didn’t have a bite to eat, it was just to have a place to go for the afternoon,” Murphy added.
Volunteers also deliver meals to shut-ins, and some of those who attend leave with extras for other family members and neighbours.
Volunteers load up the plates with the ingredients the Christmas Day diners choose.
Salt fish is popular, Jean emphasized. “People along the coast, that’s all they had for Christmas years and years ago, salt fish, and that’s bringing back memories for them.”
The Murphys prepare the fish at home. They started with 10 pounds for that first Christmas meal and now they’re up to 40 pounds.
Meals will be served at St. Anthony’s Hall on Christmas Day this year from noon until approximately 4 p.m. There will also be musicians dropping in throughout the afternoon to perform Christmas songs and, as has become a Christmas meal staple, Jean Hagen could be called upon for the Chicken Dance.
Last year more than 200 meals were served, including about 175 at the hall.
“They are like a family. They come because they think it’s going to be good; they have a good time here,” John said of those who attend.
Asked how the volunteers enjoy the experience, he adds, “the thought, in general, is we’ve had a really, really nice day. Ask anybody who’s worked here and they will say they had just a good day.”
100 pounds of potatoes
50 pounds each of carrots, turnips and parsnips
40 pounds of salt fish
A big roaster of beans
All the fixings – Gravy, dressing, etc.