By Tim Kelly
If they serve it, will they come?
As it turns out, they will. In droves. And this year’s Ocean City Community Christmas Dinner , its 28th edition, promises to be the biggest one yet.
“Our goal is to have 1,500 meals ready to go on Friday,” said Mike Lukens, whose wife Peaches came up with the idea almost three decades ago. “Every year it gets bigger and every year we don’t run out of food. I’m not sure how it all comes together so well, it just works.”
The event runs from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Christmas Day, Sunday, Dec. 25th at St. Peter’s United Methodist Church, 501 E. 8th St. in Ocean City. If anyone would like to join the legion of more than 100 community volunteers involved in the event, they should call 609-398-8781.
The event concept is simple: free turkey and ham buffet dinners are served for anyone who shows up. Take-out meals are encouraged and volunteers deliver to shut-ins and provide transportation for others to attend. Entertainment includes musicians and a karaoke machine.
There is also a “gift room” where presents mysteriously show up for distribution to deserving recipients. Two kids rode away on brand new bikes at a recent dinner, Mike said. Gift cards donated by local businesses are given out to attendees.
But that’s just part of the story. The dinner is not just about giving people a place to go who have nowhere else on Christmas. It’s about the holiday spirit, volunteerism, and, well, fun.
“It’s Christmas!” Lukens said. “It’s more like a party.”
Stories from the event are too numerous to list here, but several stand out. One year Lukens observed a family of five that ate and then pitched in to help. The husband, wife and all three kids helped in the kitchen, helped serve food and helped with the cleanup. “I have to talk to these people,” Lukens said to himself.
Turns out the family was from Chicago and they take a Christmas road trip every year by throwing a dart at a map of the United States. That year, the dart happened to land near Ocean City. “They told me it was the best trip they ever took as a family,” Mike said. “It was a Christmas miracle!”
Another time, a family showed up around 3 p.m. and Mike told them they should sit down and eat before the event closed.
“They told me no, we’re good…we are just here to help clean up. That was epic!”
The event has evolved over the years. It began at the Youth Center, with Lukens and his volunteers brining in all the food and equipment into the facility. It then moved to Ocean City Baptist Church where the event had access to a kitchen. After a few more years, the dinner outgrew its new home and moved again to St. Peter’s, where it has been ever since.
“We get all kinds of people,” Lukens went on. “There are (nursing home) residents, volunteers who help set up and then join us to eat, or just people from around town.”
If this sounds like “an Ocean City thing,” Lukens couldn’t agree more.
“It’s such an Ocean City thing! One thing I’ve learned over the years is that people want to help. People want to volunteer. This is something they can plug right into.”
He singled out Ward’s Bakery, OC Surf Café, Arlene’s on Asbury and Spadafora’s Seafood among the most loyal supporters, but he gives a caveat to that.
“If I start naming businesses and people I will forget someone, but also, most don’t even like to be recognized. They are doing this out of pure kindness and they ask nothing in return.”
Each year the event kicks off around Thanksgiving with a letter to the community soliciting donations. And everything just seems to fall into place from there, Lukens said.
“Right now there are about 40 turkeys thawing out at St. Peters that people have donated,” he said. “Other people bring fully cooked turkeys, hams, side dishes, the works.”
In recent years, the bulk of the logistics and planning have been handed down from Mike and Peaches to their daughter, Halley.
“Last year, I looked up and there was Max, my 4-year-old grandson, who was helping to clean up. I thought to myself, ‘yes, this is kind of neat.’”
Neat, indeed. Just another Christmas miracle, Ocean City-style.