Uncertainty grips decades-old Christmas tradition

Every year about 900 people fill Glad Tidings Church at 1800 Quadra St. for the Christmas Spirit Community Dinner.

After 21 years of rallying volunteers and orchestrating a Christmas dinner open to all, Christina Parkhurst found herself in front of her peers accepting an award for outstanding fundraising on National Philanthropy Day.

But the recognition came at a low point for the volunteer, who is uncertain she’ll be able to pull off the dinner this year.

“I was up there receiving this award and all I wanted to say was ‘I’d turn this in for $10,000,’” Parkhurst said of the Nov. 7 awards ceremonies at the Fairmont Empress hotel.

Every year about 900 people fill Glad Tidings Church at 1800 Quadra St. for the Christmas Spirit Community Dinner, a nondenominational holiday celebration open to all members of the community, primarily those who are in need for social or economic reasons.

The germ for the dinner came to Parkhurst at 25, when she was a student participating in a women’s group aimed at cultivating a positive influence in her community.

“Part of the philosophy of our group was making a difference, not when you’re rich and famous, necessarily, but as a way of being,” she said.

Parkhurst, working as a server at the time, organized the first Christmas dinner for 40 people that year. It was hosted by the George and Dragon pub, known now as the Fernwood Inn, and came together thanks in large part to her family, who have remained involved throughout the years.

“One year we ran out of turkeys because the person who was supposed to cook them didn’t,” said her father George Parkhurst.

During the Christmas day event, George contacted the Empress, which donated eight cooked turkeys and ensured the meal went off without a hitch.

Since the Gordon Head resident first “high jacked” her family’s Christmas, Parkhurst has involved hundreds of volunteers and business donors to coordinate the dinner, which would otherwise cost about $20,000. It includes an outdoor barbecue for anyone who’d rather forgo the sit-down meal, photos with Santa and a llama as well as presents for every child.

Despite volunteers and donors who have stepped up in support of the event, Parkhurst is facing another, larger hurdle.

“(Donations are) trickling in so slowly that it’s hard to tell whether we’ll even be able to put on the dinner this year,” Parkhurst said. “People are usually all over secret Santa gifts … we’ve got children that register for the dinner and it’s really amazing for them to get a gift that they love. The bigger issue is: if we don’t have the food, there’s no dinner to come to.”

A series of calamities throughout the year – including the loss of a fall fundraiser and its revenue – have left the registered charity unable to cover its own administration costs, let alone the cost of purchasing food for the dinner.

Meeting the demands of hosting between 700 and 900 guests was further complicated when primary volunteers and food suppliers pulled their support from this year’s dinner, set for sittings at noon and 3 p.m. on boxing day.

Olivia Keane has been volunteering for the Christmas Spirit Community Dinner with her family since she was seven years old.

“It’s all we’ve ever really known for Christmas,” said Keane, who co-ordinates the kids’ craft table, complete with gingerbread decorating. “It’s a really cool thing to do, especially if you have kids because it’s all about giving back.”

For Parkhurst, the dinner serves a need that reaches beyond feeding the hungry.

“The whole idea is community,” she said. “It’s not just to serve those with low incomes. It’s really about an extended family and getting a family together. When people don’t have family, it’s not a very fun Christmas.”

nnorth@saanichnews.com

Get involved

Here’s how to get involved in the Christmas Spirit Community Dinner:

• Attend the next volunteer meetings: Dec. 4 and 11, 2:30 to 4 p.m., in the upstairs area of the McDonald’s Restaurant at 1567 Cedar Hill X Rd.

• Donate or learn more at www.christmasspiritdinner.ca

• Contact Parkhurst at xmasdins@telus.net or 250-472-1040

•Advanced registration is required to attend the dinner. Please do not contact Glad Tidings regarding the event.

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