It’s a tradition for many on Christmas Day, one that attracts people for mostly the same reason. They like to sit down shoulder-to-shoulder with neighbors and familiar faces for a holiday feast that would make folks in Whoville jealous. The Murphys Friends Christmas Dinner brought people together from all over for turkey, all the tried-and-true trimmings and a completely festive mindset that filled the Native Sons Hall in Murphys to overflowing.
“You see people you don’t see all year long,” said Ron Dwelley, who spent his third Christmas directing a crew of eight drivers who piloted a fleet of vehicles into the county to deliver meals to anyone who asked.
Lyle Palmer, who has volunteered during the feast with his wife, Sherrie, for seven or eight years, agreed that it’s the community that makes the meal so special.
“We enjoy it,” Lyle said as he doled out cranberry sauce to hungry diners. “I like people.”
Tim Folendorf made sure the dinner was ready on time – maybe even a bit earlier than expected – managing the kitchen crew during his 25th year assuring the turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy and more were hot and ready to be served.
The dinner started 37 years ago as an informal get-together in Angels Camp, and it is now part of many people’s celebratory traditions at Christmastime. And while the meal is offered free of charge, many revelers made donations that will go toward the 2020 feast next December.
Adam Draffen, of Turlock, had some fun as Palmer joked with his son, Jack, about the color of the cranberries.
“This is our first time here,” Adam said. “We came to be with my wife’s grandmother from Arnold.”
For the 2019 feast, Folendorf said the Diestel Turkey Ranch east of Sonora donated 666 pounds of fully cooked turkeys. He had those cooked birds warming up as most people emerged from their long winter’s naps to open presents. But even before the 1 p.m. serving time, a large crowd was outside the hall ready to dive into dinner. That line remained till after 2 p.m., as a steady stream of diners stepped inside to peruse the buffet line and then sit down at tables with fellow members of the community.
Folendorf said turkeys were popped into ovens all over Murphys, and a quartet of birds was warmed at Mark Twain Medical Center in San Andreas. Some were heated at the Calaveras County Jail. Inmates at Vallecito Conservation Camp No. 1 again stepped up to make all the dressing to accompany the turkey, and those helpers baked more than 1,000 cookies that were devoured along with trolleys filled with pies and some cakes.
Back at the hall, volunteers set up the tables, then some staff the kitchen, slicing the turkeys and making sure all the side dishes are ready for the crowd. A group of four women labored over warm trays serving up the meals that Dwelley and his drivers delivered.
“We delivered 138 dinners this year,” Dwelley said. “That’s down a little from 2018, when we delivered 177.”
“We have a good group,” Folendorf said. But, there is one part of the event that can use a boost, he said. “It would be nice if we had more help on Dec. 26 with cleanup!”
Merita Callaway said the community spirit of the event is what keeps the District 3 Calaveras County supervisor working with others to throw the party. She said about 700 meals were served in 2019.
“Three parties had reservations!” she said, surprised that diners would call to try and save spaces. “We did try and accommodate them.”
Callaway said she thoroughly appreciates the small army of “dedicated” volunteers who show up on Christmas Day to help, and she applauded new additions to the lineup.
“At least half the guests had been before,” she said of the familiar crowd. “Our new guests were surprised to see people they knew.”
To keep the crowd groovin’, “We had Dr. ‘J’ (Jay Grimstead) for his annual music flair, plus two new musicians, Chrys Mollett and Ras Beeken Dan.”