Community Spirit

Denman Islanders bring together the whole community to celebrate the season

The Christmas spirit is alive and well on Denman Island, <a href=

buy where, this site for the past 25 years, heart volunteers have put on a traditional turkey dinner for the whole community, the Sunday before Christmas.” src=”×435.jpg” width=”290″ height=”435″ /> The Christmas spirit is alive and well on Denman Island, where, for the past 25 years, volunteers have put on a traditional turkey dinner for the whole community, the Sunday before Christmas.

Imagine inviting the whole population of Denman Island for Christmas dinner. If even one-third accepted the invitation, you’d be serving roast turkey, stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, vegetables, salad and dessert to more than 300 people. And then cleaning up afterwards.

In fact, this is just what has been happening annually for the past 25 years or so at the Denman Island Community Christmas Dinner. A blanket invitation is sent out to the whole community via posters, advertising in the local papers, and word-of-mouth. Hundreds of people gather in the Community Hall. Not only is there dinner, but Santa comes with sacks of presents for all the kids. Sometimes there is carol singing. Always, the Hall is lavishly decorated with wreaths and bows and twinkling lights, tablecloths and centre-pieces on the tables, and a bristling Douglas Fir Christmas tree sparkling on the stage. And it’s all free of charge.

“To-go” plates heaping with food are packaged up and distributed to that night’s ferry staff, and meals are delivered around the island to people confined to their homes for health reasons. There’s food for everyone who wants it. Last year, which was pretty typical, 330 diners took part in the feast.

All this happens seemingly spontaneously. There’s no sponsoring organization of any kind–just a dedicated team of volunteers who do it because they love food and love their community.

As you can imagine, pulling this all off is an organizational feat. The woman at the hub of it is Gloria Michin, co-owner, with her husband Clark, of the Denman Hardware Store.

Michin signed up to help peel potatoes back in 1990, when she moved to Denman. She volunteered annually and gradually got more involved, serving as bookkeeper and then segueing into the coordinator position about eight years ago.

As befits a hardware store owner, Michin emits a pragmatic, well-organized, get-‘er-done attitude, which stands her in good stead in her coordinator role.
“It does seem like a lot of work, but it’s spread out among a lot of people. And it’s only intense for a short period of time. Really, it’s mostly just a month of concentrated work,” she says modestly.

It helps that the event has been around for such a long time. Over the decades, traditions and techniques have evolved, and each year the volunteer crew finds new ways to improve efficiency. Still it is a major production, involving approximately 70 volunteers and four or five different venues.

The turkeys are, of course, the heart of the feast, and they pose the biggest logistical challenges: “We typically order 10 25-pound turkeys from Butcher’s Block. They can’t be much bigger than that or they don’t fit into our ovens. There are 10 people involved in turkey preparation. We pick up the turkeys on Monday and they go into a walk-in cooler to thaw. On Thursday people make stuffing all day at the end of the day, the turkeys are stuffed in the kitchen at the General Store,” says Michin. She then transports the turkeys to their roasting locations–the handful of commercial kitchens on Denman, two cafes, the Seniors Hall, and the General Store.

The turkeys roast overnight, but they need to be tended. That’s Michin’s job. She sleeps in a spare room over the General Store and makes moonlit rounds of ‘downtown’ Denman with her turkey baster.

In the morning, Michin collects all the turkeys and takes them to the Community Hall kitchen to cool. Transporting 10 steaming hot, juicy turkeys is a bit of a challenge.

There was one year where I put the turkeys on the back seat of my car and the grease spilled out onto my car seat. Well, my car smelled like turkey for six months!” she says.

When the turkeys are cool enough, a group of volunteers takes out the stuffing, collects and de-fats the drippings, slices up the turkey, and stores everything in fridges.
At that point, there are about 48 hours until the feast begins (it’s always on a Sunday). Over the next two days, volunteers in various locales are busy preparing all the side dishes.

A lot of fine-tuning has gone on over the years to save labor and make things more efficient. For instance, the mashed potatoes used to be peeled by hand by a team of six dedicated peelers, back before the term “repetitive stress injury” was common. Then Michin found out she could buy buckets of peeled potatoes, which eased things up considerably. Once cooked, the potatoes were mashed in the industrial-sized bread mixer at the Denman Island Bakery. But when the bakery relocated to Courtenay, it took the mixer along.

“I hesitated to ask people to mash 20 pounds of potatoes by hand,” says Michin. General Store owner Daryl McLaughlin came to the rescue by connecting Michin to a supplier who sells fresh mashed potatoes in tubs.

“They just need to be heated up! And they taste like home-made,” says Michin. All this is funded by donations from Denman businesses and residents. On the night itself, approximately 60 volunteers contribute–heating, serving, cleaning, refilling, setting up and taking down. The guests are asked to bring a contribution of a salad, side dish, or dessert, and to bring their own plates and cutlery.

A vibrant energy fills the spacious hall as the guests arrive. Some are dressed up; some are in jeans or sweatpants. Some gather in large groups of extended family, neighbors or friends; others pick a spot randomly, ending up next to fellow Islanders they don’t even know until that moment. There are literally hundreds of people to say hi to.

The food lineup snakes half-way around the Hall, but it moves steadily, and by the time people get served, they’ve had a dozen or so conversations, with small children, community elders, old timers and new arrivals, former enemies and former lovers. Eventually everyone gets to the front of the line and heads back to their tables with laden plates.

Pretty soon kids are running around, shrieking with excitement, asking again and again when Santa is coming. And when he arrives, usually with a few elves to help out, the kids muster themselves into a ragged, unruly line and wait their turn to sit on Santa’s lap and get a toy. Meanwhile, the parents enjoy a chance to have adult conversation, perhaps enjoy a glass of wine.

People are eating, talking, or just looking around. There’s a collective sense of excitement and conviviality–and a touch of overwhelm. It’s intense to share a meal with 300-odd people, many of whom you are connected to in multiple ways. It’s also beautiful. The hall feels full of the true spirit of Christmas: a celebration of generosity, relationship, family and community, a time to come together in the dark of winter and make merry, together.

As things wind down, Michin finally is able to sit down. She’s hungry, she’s tired, and she’s happy, and she finally gets a chance to eat a delicious Christmas dinner, just like everyone else in the community.