BY MARCUS DAY
Here is a Christmas tale to put a glow in your heart during these cold, bleak January days.
It is about a man in Maple Creek, a newcomer to the community, who found himself longing for food and good company on Christmas Eve, probably in that order.
By early afternoon he was so hungry that he couldn’t rid his mind of the taunting images of roast turkey heaped on a steaming plate. Of stuffing and cranberry sauce. Of Brussels sprouts that he associated not with Belgium but with England, his homeland. Of a festive atmosphere peculiar to Christmas.
Several days earlier someone had told him about a free 5pm Christmas dinner at the Anglican church. At the time he dismissed the notion. Free nosh-up? No, no, no, he thought, I can do better in my kitchen. With a few sticks of spaghetti, tomatoes, carrots and tuna, I can conjure up something wonderful, fit for the Queen, or at least her corgis.
By 4.30pm he had acknowledged his folly, returning the canned food to the cupboard. After putting on new pants and a blue corduroy mariners cap – his idea of dressing up – he wandered towards St Mary the Virgin Anglican Church, a gable-roofed brick building on the corner of Jasper Street and Second Avenue.
It was 4.55pm, but everything seemed too quiet. Perhaps this was the wrong church. Or the wrong time. Or his informant had been misinformed.
The man’s doubts intensified when he inspected the church message board; nothing about dinner. Ah well, he thought, back to spaghetti and those cans. Maybe Chili would be better than tuna. If only he had some Parmesan.
“Are you here for dinner?”
A man in a fawn coat shimmered out of the gloaming, a friendly apparition.
“Why, yes I am.”
“Well, it’s this way. Follow me. I’m Jack, by the way.”
The man followed Jack to a parish hall attached to the back of the church. Inside were smiling faces, and the words “happy Christmas” came from every mouth. There was the vague aroma of food.
“Come, I’ll show you where you can put up your jacket.”
Jack ushered the man down a corridor leading to the kitchen. Along a wall was a coat rack. In the background was the gentle hum of people talking.
“Hi, how are you? Aren’t you the reporter who got lost?”
A woman, her face wreathed in smiles, had emerged from the kitchen.
“Yes, I suppose I am.”
“I’ll find you a place at the table,” said Jack. “You can sit next to me.”
The man trod warily to the hall, strangely diffident, feeling like a Hugh Grant character. A lady in blue seated by the door asked him to sign a visitors’ book.
“How many are here?” he asked.
“About sixty. Enjoy your meal. And happy Christmas.”
The man thought how odd it was not to be asked to show a ticket, pay a fee, or prove his identity. No paperwork, birth certificates, passports, driving licences required. Just come in … and enjoy yourself.
Tables had been arranged roughly in the pattern of a trident head; people sat on the outer prongs; turkey and all the trimmings were on the middle one; cheesecake, brownies and gluten-free food were at the top. No need to worry about the social awkwardness of finding a place: as promised, Jack had reserved a seat. He immediately introduced the man to others at the table – names like Sean and George.
The man turned to a neighbour and asked: “Who’s that over there, rushing about?”
“Oh, he’s the minister, Peter Boote.”
“Yes, Boote. As in boot of a car – that’s what you say in England, don’t you? Only it’s boot with an e.”
“Is he the Reverend Boote?”
“No, he’s an Archdeacon.”
After Archdeacon Boote had said grace, the time for feasting had arrived. And yes, it was a sumptuous meal: salad, rolls, mashed potato, carrots, beans, turnips, ham, turkey, gravy and cranberry sauce.
Driven by greed, the man committed the sin of overfilling his plate with the first food he came across. By the time he came to ham and turkey, he had to stack slices on top of each other; the structure looked horribly unstable. Now where to pour the gravy without flooding the plate?
“You’re going to have to create a little gully,” said a helpful woman in the queue.
Following the advice, the man dug a culvert in the mounds of potato through which the gravy could run. It was a masterful piece of construction.
Proudly, the man took his place at the table, conscious of the wobbling food tower on his plate. In comparison, Jack’s helping was barely enough to feed an insect.
The conversation veered from ranching to how many kilometres various types of trucks could do to the gallon, rotator cuff injuries, the oil and gas industry, the great fire in Fort McMurray and Jack’s Scottish ancestry. The man learned several things, including: Jack is 93 and lives at Cypress Lodge, Cobble Creek Lodge is a hotel, not a care home, and the youngest person at dinner was Colt Needham, aged 7. Given the job of greeter, Colt is a member of an after-school group called The Juniors.
After the feasting, people were handed glasses full of treats, before they filed out into the night, serenaded again by “happy Christmas.” Some stayed for a 7pm service.
The man lingered, curious to discover who was behind this act of beneficence.
Do churches in England open their doors to the public like this? It was a question he asked the Ven. Boote.
“I’m not sure that they do,” he smiled. “We enjoy doing it – and it seems to be appreciated.”
The man jotted down names of church volunteers who had been working since 1pm preparing for dinner, starting with peeling vegetables: Peter, Mary Ellen, Nancy, Erna, Anne-Cooke, Sharlene, Kennedys, Dick and Colleen, Connie, Sally, Peggy, Micky, Winnie, Ian and Janet, and Ann. And, of course, Colt. There were probably names omitted, names of other unheralded, kindly souls who enjoy giving much more than receiving.
“How long has the church been doing this?” the man asked a volunteer.
“For as long as I can remember,” she said. “My mother used to do it. Now I do it, and so does my daughter.”
The man reflected on the last two hours. In our overcomplicated world in which money is the main driver, here was a simple, deeply meaningful, gesture. Surely, it would make Jesus smile.
With this thought, I disappeared into the night, a happier and a wiser man .