by Paula Kully –
The Spirit of Christmas is alive and well in Sidney, from the festive decorations, sparkling lights on the streets and cheery, colourful shop windows of local merchants to the Christmas in Sidney program organized by the Sidney BIA and the wonderful Annual Sidney Sparkles Christmas Parade coordinated by the Peninsula Celebrations Society. Every year, Christmas in Sidney is a marvellous culmination of all of these elements, combined with the generosity and loving hearts of the people of the Saanich Peninsula who haven’t forgotten the true meaning of Christmas.
One such group of citizens are the organizers and volunteers of the Annual Community Christmas Dinner. The dinner is coordinated by Wendy Warshawski, with the assistance of over 30 volunteers. Volunteers are coordinated by Isabelle Yoxall, and Jim Dunn, along with other Sidney Lion’s members, provides transportation for people who need a ride to and from the event.
The Dinner is held at the Mary Winspear Centre on Christmas Day and attracts between 200 and 250 people of all ages who would otherwise be alone at Christmas. It is catered by Clara Knight with food supplied by three of the area’s major grocery stores: Fairway Market, Sidney Save-On-Foods and Thrifty Foods Sidney. The delectable desserts are provided by Brentwood Bay’s Breadstuffs Bakery.
Guests are also treated to entertainment and a visit from Santa, who stops by to pass out gifts and spread some Christmas cheer. Dinner is served from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. with two sittings: one at 11:30 a.m. and a second at 1 p.m. (to register in advance from now until December 20 call 250-656-7678).
The Peninsula’s Annual Community Christmas Dinner is steeped in tradition and the spirit of Christmas. Like a page from the Charles Dickens Classic, A Christmas Carol, the ongoing story of the Dinner can melt the heart of even the staunchest Scrooge. It all began 18 years ago with a lovely woman named Jeanette Hughes. Many people on the Peninsula will remember Jeannette as an outstanding community volunteer. Among other things, she served on Sidney Town Council, created Access Awareness Day and was the advocate for improvements and policies that design our streets and public facilities to make them accessible to people with disabilities. As well, she was one of the key founders of the Community Christmas Dinner. What’s more is that she did all of this from a wheelchair, as Jeanette herself suffered from MS. Although Jeannette was never alone at Christmas, she recognized that many other people were and she was compelled to do something about that. This was the impetus for the Community Christmas Dinner.
Jeanette passed away April 10, 2013, but others in the community have led the charge and carried on this wonderful community feast. One of those people was John Mackelson, who spent many years as the chef behind the Christmas Dinner, working alongside caterer Clara Knight. John was a French-trained chef who worked for Thrifty Foods for over 20 years in their Thrifty Food Kitchens. Tragically, John was killed in a motorcycle accident in April 2015.
The organizers of the Christmas Dinner continue to carry out the tradition in honour of these two amazing community drivers, and I think they would be proud and pleased by this.
In a roundabout way, Jeanette has touched my life personally. I only met her once and it was very briefly. But, through her, I met her daughter Maureen. This was four years ago when Jeannette was posthumously presented with the Mayor’s Community Builder award. Maureen accepted on behalf of the family and since that time, we have developed what I know will be a lifelong friendship.
The year after Jeanette died, Maureen volunteered at the Community Dinner. She said it was a way of being close to her mom as she knew that, of all the important projects her mother worked on, the Annual Community Christmas Dinner was the one closest to her heart. I see the essence of her mother in Maureen and the many other volunteers involved with the Christmas Dinner – people who are so incredibly thoughtful, always giving, always thinking of others and always inspiring the true spirit of Christmas all year long.