"The Griswalds are here!"
This is what my dad exclaimed as we turned into the driveway of the Saugatuck Congregational Church in Westport on Christmas morning.
In case you didn't catch the reference, the Griswalds are the indisputably lame yet somewhat endearing family from a series of National Lampoon comedies starring Chevy Chase. Chase plays "Clark Griswald"—the family's patriarch who is constantly organizing vacations and outings that humiliate his teenaged children, but almost always bring the family closer together in the end.
The Shaker family's Christmas took a decidedly Griswald turn three years ago when our parents announced that our Christmas morning would be spent at the Saugatuck Congregational Church's Christmas Day Feast, an annual holiday dinner that serves local homeless shelters, 12-Step Program members and anyone else looking for somewhere to dine on Christmas Day.
According to Don O'Guin, who was in charge of the 70 volunteers expected to help out on Christmas Day, 2009 marks the 39th year the meal has been offered.
It also marked the fourth consecutive Christmas that the Shaker family—my 20-year-old sister Grace, 17-year-old brother Will, my parents and I— have been in the car at 8 a.m., on our way up the Merritt Parkway to Westport.
Guests dine in a cafeteria-style room in the lower level of the building with Santa's stage at one end and a commercial kitchen at the other. By the time we signed in at 8:30 a.m., the church was already humming with activity.
The kitchen was standing room only—with volunteers shoulder-to-shoulder preparing hams, turkeys, dressing, carrots and mashed potatoes for the more than 250 guests that were to arrive in less than four hours.
In the dining room, tables were being hauled into place and decorated with greenery, tinsel and fruit.
As Shakers rolled 250 knives, forks and spoons into napkins, we met fellow volunteers from Stamford, Georgetown and Westport. Dad got pretty good at cutting 12" lengths of ribbon to tie up the utensil packages, and we learned that Will was this year's quickest utensil wrapper.
Grace represented our family in the kitchen, helping wash and cut carrots. O'Guin estimated a $400 donation of produce from the Stop n' Shop in Westport along with donations from Pepperidge Farm and Panera Bread. In addition to the 70 volunteers on Christmas Day, O'Guin said that once the feast of 2009 was over, about 200 people would have lent a helping hand to making the meal a success.
As the next shift of volunteers arrived, we finished our morning's work by setting up the Pie Room, the sweet spot for a pile of pumpkin, apple and pecan pies that would be served after dinner.
Before leaving, I turned back and looked at a freshly decorated room. This was no longer an ordinary church cafeteria—it was a warm and bright dining room anxiously awaiting the arrival of its many fortunate guests. Christmas lights twinkled. Tinsel sparkled.
I can only hope that the guests who dined here left with their souls feeling a little brighter, too.