Holiday dinner brings families to Monterey County fairgrounds

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Holiday dinner brings families to Monterey County fairgrounds
Delilah McLemore, 2, holds up a toy she received during toy giveaway at the Christmas Dinner at the Monterey Fairgrounds and Event Center on Monday December 25, 2017. (David Royal/Herald Correspondent)

MONTEREY >> Sharing and caring. That’s what the free 32nd annual Community Holiday Dinner was about Christmas Day at the Monterey County Fairgrounds & Event Center.

There was a sumptuous holiday meal, free breads and clothing and, of course, Santa Claus and presents for the children.

A group of boys eyed the pile of toys. Asked what he wanted, one boy said, “I want the tree,” pointing of a 5-foot-tall Christmas tree decorated with silver ornaments.

A small girl with black eyes and hair, wearing a crimson-colored sequinned dress and black patent leather shoes, talked with one of Santa’s elves. She pointed at piles of unwrapped toys near a Christmas tree.

A little while later she was rocking on new wooden rocking horse beside the table where her family sat. She rocked and petted the horse’s mane made of brown yarn. Then she returned to her seat at the table and a cup of hot chocolate.

The horse was a prize in a toy raffle. The raffle, for children younger than 13, was held before Santa and Mrs. Claus arrived. More toys were later presented to each child.

The first ticket number called was held by a young boy. He returned from the small stage wheeling a new bicycle.

“I got the bike,” the boy said to his brothers and friends. “I knew I had the lucky one.”

The toys included dolls, games, basketballs and “Star Wars” items.

At noon, after a prayer, volunteers began serving the meal to two lines of people.

The menu: roasted turkey and ham, cranberry sauce, candied yams, mixed vegetables, mixed salad, mashed potatoes, bread stuffing and dessert.

Jeffrey S. Walker, a chef at San Juan Oakes in Hollister, headed up the kitchen crew.

“I just like cooking,” he said. “I get to cook with some of my friends and family and put on a nice dinner.”

A core committee of about 25 people plan the Christmas Day dinner all year, said chairman Rick Hughett of Corral de Tierra. He began working on the project 25 years ago. The group works in partnership with the Food Bank for Monterey County. About 400 people volunteer to make the event happen.

Of the core group, Hughett said, “They all have different pieces of the pie to put it together.”

By the end of the day, about 2,000 meals were served.

Tables in the Monterey Room were covered with red and green table cloths and Christmas centerpieces. There was live music by the group Grumbling Ginger (Andrew Gilhooley and Jana Heller) and Dr. T’s Music (Tomas Marins).

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The volunteers seemed to get as much out of the event as the guests. Ashley Richmond and Tatiana Shoffner of Celebration Church in Salinas wore green elf outfits and helped hand out toys.

Jai Alpert of Carmel Valley came to the event four years ago after her husband died.

“I come here and I really experience joy, and it gets gotten better each year,” she said. “This is just a wonderful thing that happens.”

Shirley Thompson of Marina began volunteering at the dinner in the 1990s.

“This is the fifth day we’ve been here setting it all up,” she said. “And tomorrow we’ll be here tearing it all down and putting it away until next year. … I enjoy helping people and giving,” Thompson said. “I do a lot of volunteering in the community.”

Thompson just retired after working at Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula for 40 years.

At 12:30 p.m., people were still arriving at the fairgrounds to eat and enjoy the event. Others left, carrying bags of clothing and bread. Children posed for pictures with Santa and Mrs. Claus.

Volunteers delivered desserts on trays to people sitting at tables: pumpkin pie, apple pie, cookies and cupcakes.

Marius played “Ave Maria” and other Christmas songs on his flute, accompanied by recorded music. Volunteers replenished the food lines, and old friends greeted one another.

And still more people arrived.

“Merry Christmas,” volunteer greeters told them. “Welcome.”

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