Greta Wilson never met Colleen Chang, but she greeted her on Christmas at State College Presbyterian Church with a hug like that of an old friend.
For Wilson, Christmas is a time to meet new people and bring company to those who don’t want to be alone during the holiday. It’s also a time for worship and fellowship.
“You see people you’ve never seen before and maybe mingle with others who might not be saved, but find the hope on their hearts to come and bring themselves one step closer to our savior,” Wilson said. “That’s what Christmas is.”
On Wednesday, the church hosted its annual Christmas dinner, which has been a tradition for more than 20 years, said organizer Greg Elliott.
“This is the big event that really connects the church to this community,” Elliott said.
Elliott has been a church member for about 19 years and has headed up the dinner for about six years — each year bringing something more rewarding to his job.
“We give back and get a lot of appreciation from members and outsiders,” Elliott said. “It’s a terrific compliment to this congregation, and we open our doors every Christmas.”
One year, the church received a $15 check from a family who was not financially well-off, but was rich in appreciation.
“The check came with a note that said, ‘Do not cash until the 14th,’ and we knew how much this meant,” Elliott said.
The menu on Wednesday included 17 turkeys, 300 pounds of mashed potatoes, 40 pies, 50 pounds of green beans, and other holiday staples such as stuffing, gravy, cutout cookies and homemade pastries.
Food preparation began on Christmas Eve.
Kitchen coordinator Cheryl Price said that a volunteer crew began making food and packing dishes for delivery so that everything could run smoothly on Christmas.
And it did.
“There is a lot to do, but we get it done because it has to and we get a volunteer group that is so selfless,” Price said.
And while the day is hectic, Price said she does it because she can’t imagine a Christmas not giving back.
“I do it because of those people,” Price said. “You see their smiles and people enjoying the food, and it’s a better reward than anything else.”
When the estimated 350 guests finished their dinner, they migrated to another dining hall that included desserts and the music accompaniment of Zack Maser, who played Christmas classics on his guitar.
Maser, a church parishioner, has been providing live entertainment for the annual Christmas dinner for about four years. He said his mission was to play all kinds of Christmas music that put people in the holiday spirit.
This was the first year the the Bepplers were on the other side of the table. Usually volunteering, Marcia Beppler said that she and her husband, Dave Beppler, enjoyed the dinner instead.
“We’re no spring chickens. We’ve been here for a long time, but it’s nice to see people coming together for everyone else,” Marcia Beppler said.
The Bepplers have been members of State College Presbyterian Church for at least 50 years.
“The camaraderie is something you don’t see at a lot of places,” Dave Beppler said. “It’s a great way to bring up your family and experience the growth of a church event like this and give back to the public on Christmas. Christmas is not just about opening gifts, but serving others for a better good.”
The Baldwin family, who lost their daughter in an accident, started the annual Christmas dinner more than two decades ago.
Over the years, Elliott said the dinner has always maintained its tradition of giving back.
“It’s the kind of place people can meet their second family,” Elliott said.
After the new year, Elliott said, he and church members will debrief on how things went at this year’s event and think of ways to improve the Christmas dinner for next year.
“This is a great congregation in a great community like State College that is always looking to help others,” Elliott said.