SHERIDAN — Bluegrass music coming from one corner, carolers singing in the other, the smell of turkey wafting down the hall and children lined up to get their gift from jolly old St. Nick. Where else could you be but the 23rd Annual Community Holiday Dinner?
The Sheridan community tradition continued Sunday night at the Holiday Inn as hundreds of locals met for a hot meal and holiday cheer.
The community dinner is a free event, open to all, which began in 1991 as a small dinner for those facing financial hardship.
The dinner started when the then general manager of the Holiday Inn experienced a similar event in Missouri and wanted to bring it home to Sheridan.
In its first year volunteers fed 358 people who needed a little help around the holiday season. After a few years, organizers began to open up the event to more people, as they saw it filling other needs in the community like basic fellowship.
Now the evening has grown to see more than 1,200 people of all ages and backgrounds join together to simply be together.
Mark Demple, treasurer of the Community Holiday Dinner Committee, says the event has become part of the fabric of the community.
“Sheridan has embraced this whole heartedly,” he commented Sunday night. “For some, this is officially the start of their holiday season.”
Perhaps the number of volunteers solidifies exactly how much Sheridan has embraced the dinner, more so than the number of people it feeds.
Michelle Buchanan-Smith, Volunteer Coordinator for the committee and Sheridan Chamber of Commerce Ambassador, says she counted 145 volunteers Sunday night.
Approximately 30 ambassadors were on hand serving food to the lines of attendees throughout the evening. Girl Scouts collected and counted tickets at the entrance and carried plates to tables for parents with little ones. Sunlight Federal Credit employees served disabled attendees in a designated room down the hall. Salvation Army volunteers have sent approximately 30 people every year for the past five years to help wherever needed. Even individual members of the community show up with their children to help clear plates.
“I love the community involvement in this,” Buchanan-Smith said. “I love how everyone wants to give.”
Buchanan-Smith is also in charge of collecting items for the gift bags that Santa and his helpers give to every child he sees. She says the hardest part about that task is spending the money allotted for it. “So many places want to give for free,” she commented. “I say I’m willing to pay them and they say no.”
Vertical Church is another group that has supported the event annually since the church’s inception.
“It is an amazing time of year to celebrate community togetherness and the holidays,” said Pastor James Gilbert as he looks around the dining room. “It’s a really positive, upbeat event and people just like being part of positive things.”
The dining room was full of old friends and new, families young and old, singers, helpers, and of course a lot of food. The event meant something different to each person. Many sat and caught up with old friends, some simply enjoyed the break from their busy weeks to sit down for a meal with their family.
Jackie Allen and her family use the event as an annual family get-together. “I have a grandson here I haven’t seen for a year and a half or so,” Allen said over dinner. “We’ve been doing this for five years now. It’s a wonderful thing for so many to get together.” She added that the meal was fantastic, as always.
As the plates were cleared and the event wound down, an old cowboy slumped over Santa’s chair on stage. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he announced, “Santa has left the building.”
And with that the crowds broke, until next year.