Monday, December 13, 2004

Notes From My Knapsack & Cover Story
Booster 12-19-04

While You’re In Your Slippers

As the reindeer pull a certain sleigh back to a barn by the North Pole, around dawn on Dec. 25, some Licking County folk are just heading off to work.
Many fortunate local residents enjoy a meal with family and friends, made in their own kitchens on Christmas Day. Quite a few, on the other hand, are making and enjoying holiday meals in slightly different circumstances.
4 a.m. is when the first cooks show up at the Heath Big Boy, where Skip Salome has opened up the doors for years with a volunteer crew on Christmas to make sure that people, especially seniors, have a place to go and enjoy some warmth and fellowship.
"Many senior citizens who come by thank us for being open," says Salome, who will serve customers from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. at a buffet style arrangement. "We really see the largest interest in breakfast items, people are looking for that through 2 o’clock, and then it steadies down to individuals and couples wanting to have a meal with others around ‘em."
Salome says that cook Mike Lanning has been working this day for years, preparing 10 turkeys, but also going through 80 pounds of bacon for that breakfast crowd.
"We’ll go through five, ten, fifteen gallons of gravy probably," Salome laughs. "But the staff here and at my catering business fed 1,400 plus when the 211th was mobilized over at the Armory, so I think we can handle the Christmas crew. We’ll cook non-stop, that’s for sure."
Homer Curry and his family have worked a different sort of Christmas meal set-up for years, in the basement of St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church.
On Christmas Day at Noon, anyone at all who wants to join for a holiday meal is invited, at no charge, to come and eat together.
"We feed over a hundred people, with some take-outs we get to folks we’ve heard about along with all the police and firefighters on duty that day," Curry says. "Lots of families with little kids come, and we’ve got hats and gloves people donate through the year, and my family gets some toys and stuff together for them."
A long-time firefighter and former Newark City Council member, Curry knows that there are people in need of company as much as needing a meal.
"Hungry isn’t everything on Christmas Day," Curry adds, "there’s people just hungry to hear a friendly voice. We feed all that."
The children and grandchildren and friends who cook this meal haven’t really measured how much gravy or other recipe items they go through. "We just keep cooking ‘til we run out," Curry says.
On East Main Street, the Licking County Justice Center may feed as many as 320 inmates on Christmas Day. "That’s how many we have right now, but it could be a bit lower come Christmas," says Rhonda Barcus, food service manager at the county jail.
With three kitchen staff cooking and ten trustees (inmates who have earned the right to work and serve around the jail) doing the cleaning on two shifts, everyone gets a holiday meal.
"The first cook gets in about 4 a.m., with the others arriving around 11 a.m. and Noon, and we close out to get ‘em home by 8 p.m." says Barcus. She and the staff plan carefully to make a good meal out of lunch on Dec. 25.
"They may be in jail today," Barcus notes, " but these folks are also our neighbors and family members. No one wants to be in jail just to eat our sweet potatoes; we want them to go home soon wanting to be better people, and have Christmas dinner at home next year. This meal reminds them of that."
On the menu are five hams, 25 quarts of mashed potatoes, sixteen #10 cans of green beans, 30 #10’s of sweet potatoes, and 38 pumpkin pies.
"We make our own gravy," Barcus says proudly, "five gallons or more."
On down the street at the Salvation Army emergency shelter, Major Diana DeMichael explains that the shelter normally closes at 8 a.m., and only reopens at 5:30 pm, including Christmas. "We hope that most of our people find a place to eat, like Mr. Curry’s dinner at St. Francis or have some family that will take them in for at least a few days around Christmas." Some special arrangements will be made for the 25 th and the 50 some shelter residents, of whom half are families, but on Dec. 27, the residents are again expected to leave in the morning to go out in search of jobs and a place to live
It all makes running out of milk, or finding out you don’t have the right size batteries, seem like small problems on Christmas Day.

Notes From My Knapsack 12-19-04
By Jeff Gill

Darkness really does get to be a tangible, physical presence this time of year.
We string our lights, classic white or festive multicolor, with little sense that we do so to fend away evil spirits or ward off bad luck, but this impulse to put candles in our windows and outline the rooftop with bulbs goes very deep.
You can call it seasonal affective disorder, cabin fever, winter blues, or what you will, but whether it’s the faint apprehension you feel on realizing that the sun is setting and it’s just past 4 p.m., or the overwhelming frustration that leaving for work in deep darkness punctuated with starlight can bring on, night seems to be in charge.
Daytime is more of a break, a temporary respite from the dominant experience, which is after sunset, and before . . . long before, sometimes, a new sunrise.
So the need to put up lights, string glittery garlands, and light candles is probably wired deep in our brains, along with how seasons of light are embedded in our culture at this time of year. All around the world, from Diwali to Hanukah, we want to see a flame burning bright; whether Christmas or Kwanzaa, magnifying a glow into a flicker into a shining hope is native to this season.
Good news: this week, the days start to get longer. It will start after the solstice, the "standing still," (which is what that means) when day and night find their balance swinging astronomically back the other direction, when the too-late sunrise pauses a few days on the horizon, and then begins a subtle march back to the north, to a higher arc, with days slowly and then more briskly lengthening.
Can you imagine what the experience was like for ancient peoples, with little built-up knowledge in almanacs and daytimers to assure them that day would reign again, that light would return to the majority experience? How nervously and expectantly would they watch, along an alignment of posts or between two well-placed mounds to see if the sun would, once again, pause in the journey south and start back to the brighter latitudes? How much excitement must there have been when the hesitant pause became a certain return, and the promise of spring, though distant, was clearly at hand?
For Christians, the fact that December 25 is celebrated as the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem is well known to be a date of convenience. No date was recorded in Matthew or Luke, since no one other than Roman nobility celebrated birthdays then, anyhow.
Some scholars have used the nativity accounts in the gospels to propose a March date as more likely, and such a date was celebrated in the early church. But the opportunity to merge cultural observance with spiritual power was taken centuries ago, and Christians celebrate a star in the East and a light in the stable to good purpose at this time of year. Other faith traditions jostle uneasily in America with this season, but there is space and time enough, easily felt if you go out into the starry darkness and look up, for many to gather, and watch, and wonder.
This is, for us all, a season of light. Light may you have, with those you love around you, in this Christmas season, or whatever you call the brightness that lights your way.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and occasional preacher around central Ohio; share the light that has shone on your way through

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