I love Christmas.
It’s by far my favorite holiday, even over Valentine’s Day (or as I call it- my birthday eve). It is of course the day to celebrate the birth of Christ, to enjoy time with your family, and give gifts.
Every family has their favorite Christmas traditions, whether it is traveling, or visiting friends and family, or perhaps reading Twas Night Before Christmas every Christmas Eve. My family has a tradition that we have done as long as I have been alive that starts days before Christmas.
It’s a tradition that started in 1988, to provide meals to shut-ins who were normally served by the Meals on Wheels service, but as the service didn’t run on weekends or Christmas Day, the shut-ins could go days without meals, or fellowship with others. Our church, with a small group of volunteers, fed 90 people the first year in what would become the biggest service project in our community, if not the area. My family started the second year, and as the founders of the event slowly moved on, became one of the leaders, creating the best family tradition I could ever be a part of.
A month or two before the big day, my mom starts the prep, with ordering 400 pounds of turkey, 250 pounds of ham, and dozens and dozens of cans of vegetables, boxes of fruit, and seasonings. A few weeks before Christmas, members of our church and community start cooking turkeys and cornbread, bringing them to our church freezers to wait for the day. The week leading up to Christmas, hundreds of pies are brought in, the turkeys are finished, the hams are cooked, and the fruit is bagged.
Christmas Eve is my favorite day. We cut and box pies, we mix all of the dry ingredients for 52 pans of dressing, cut dozens of onions and stalks of celery (many tears are shed, and our church smells for hours, much to the chagrin of our pastor) and set everything up for the big day. Then we go to evening communion, where each family is served and prayed over by our pastor. Our Christmas Eve usually ends after a quick supper, with most of my family going to bed before 8 p.m. With the day we have ahead, more sleep, the better.
Our Christmas starts at 2 a.m. My dad, brother, sister and I load up to head to our church, while my mom stays behind to “do the Santa thing.” All of our family may be grown and out of the house, but we still leave cookies for Santa (cough my mom cough) and celebrate just like Santa comes.
Over the past decade or so, our church kitchen has gone from what you might expect a church kitchen to look like, to a slightly more industrial kitchen version. Our church re-wired the whole building a few years ago, to support the dozens of roasters. Then we bought a huge industrial convection oven, so we could cook all of the pans of dressing in one place, instead of rotating ovens between multiple locations. Now, the kitchen runs like a well oiled machine.
There’s only 8 of us that night. My family, another family, and our pastor. We each have done the dinner long enough we know our duties and fall pretty quickly into a routine. Part of us mixes the dressing, while the others start opening gallon cans of sweet potatoes and green beans. Our kitchen, full of prep tables, fridges and freezers and cabinets, provides little walking space, but we roll carts through at max speed, with enough experience at it to just barely miss knocking a pan or two of dressing off the table. My little sister and the younger girls from the other family have a science down to opening eggs and cans of cream of mushroom for the dressing. We only have to fish shells out of the egg mix a few times. Or few dozen. My dad mans a pot that is usually used for turkey frying, full of butter onions and celery that are cooking, eventually to go into the dressing as well.
Once everything is mixed, we get the first set of pans in the oven. One or two goes about cooking breakfast, and the rest of us open boxes and boxes of stick butter and brown sugar to go into the sweet potatoes (Pioneer Woman would be proud). While some finish that up, the cart races start, moving cooked dressing back to the table and taking the next round to the oven. Then my favorite part of the morning- breakfast. Our team takes a much-deserved break, enjoying whatever feast our chefs cook up for us, and enjoy a few minutes of fellowship before our next tasks start. After we get the last dressing off, the turkeys and hams warming, and the vegetables going, we head home to feed cows and do our Christmas at home. We open presents, quickly clean up, run to feed whatever cows we have in the barn and head back to the church. We only spend about an hour away, since we still have food going and volunteers start arriving around 8 a.m.
Once we get back to the church, our job has slowed. Our volunteers take over setting up the food lines for dine in and carry out, set out all of the desserts, and take calls for those who can’t get out and need their meals delivered. Before we start, all of the volunteers join in a huge circle in our fellowship hall and say a word of prayer over those who will be eating with us or we deliver to. Our volunteers quickly start getting deliveries out, with a team in the kitchen preparing to-go boxes, and others driving the meals to the homes. Another team mans the line in the fellowship hall, serving those who come in to eat. Many of those who join us come because their families couldn’t come for the holiday, or don’t have families to be with. Some bring their families because they enjoy the fellowship. Many of the volunteers are families or individuals who come just to serve, or because they don’t have anywhere to be either.
Our small town church becomes a beacon on Christmas, a place for those who don’t have anywhere else to be, to celebrate the holiday and enjoy spending time with others. When I tell my Christmas plans to someone new, I often get a wince of “that must not be any fun, because you miss out on your family Christmas.” I understand how some could see that, as the day is often about opening presents and spending time with those you love. For me and my family, we couldn’t imagine any other way. We get our present-opening time, and our family time after it’s over. But most of all, we get to serve the Lord, and serve others. We get to spend time with members of our church family and community who are as close to family as blood relatives. We get the opportunity to share Christmas with those who would otherwise be alone on a day that is meant for joy and sharing with others.
We also get to witness the miracles that never fail to happen, and never cease to amaze. One year we knew we did not have enough turkey when we laid it out to defrost the night before. Upon arriving at 2 a.m., we found more turkey in the freezer that was not there before. Another year, my mom miscounted how many cans of cream of mushroom soup we needed. On a quick trip to Allsups, the only place open in the middle of the night Christmas night, we found the exact 12 cans we needed, to the cashier’s remark of not believing they had that many in stock. Two years ago, after almost cancelling the Christmas dinner due to a severe snow storm, we plunged ahead, (with an ice road truckers trip to the nearest big city for supplies on Christmas Eve that I will never forget). By 10 that morning (when we start serving at 11) we had maybe half a dozen volunteers. We said a quick prayer, and by 10:30 the church was bustling with more volunteers than ever, and the ice and snow outside was melting to the sun coming out. And every year, we have just enough food for every person that comes in, regardless how much we prepared. (Last year we prepared for 650. We fed 742.)
Christmas is my favorite time of year. I know when I show up to that church at 2 a.m., I will see miracles happen, I will get to spend the day serving the Lord and my community, and I will get to share it all with my family. It is hard work, preparing meals for 700+ people, but being around people you love makes it fun.
To me, cooking 52 pans of dressing to Robert Earl Keen blasting through a tiny church in the middle of the night in small town West Texas is the only way I want to spend Christmas.
I encourage you this year, next year, every year to come, look for opportunities to serve your community and those less fortunate. If its your time preparing ahead of time, serving the day of, or even monetary donations, look for those service opportunities in your local community. Serving others is the best way to celebrate the birth of the one who came to serve us.
Merry Christmas from my family to yours!