It's All Good
Katonah’s Westchester Christmas Dinner
Families in need celebrate the holiday—and meet Santa himself—in Katonah at the annual Westchester Christmas Dinner.
Photo by Jessica Sterner
In today’s turbulent times, it can be hard to find anything that’s good. That’s just all good. A newborn baby. A rainbow. Elizabeth Warren (ok, that may be subjective). Well, every year during the holidays, we have our very own local example of astonishing goodness. On December 25th, the community hosts the Westchester Christmas Dinner, a gathering of our area’s most needy individuals and families who are greeted with warmth, companionship, and a hot holiday meal.
This 22-year tradition started by Mary Jordan, who has since handed over the reins to Licia Sandberg and Ben Harvey, is an unaffiliated event that takes place at Saint Mary’s Church in Katonah. And every single thing down to the last piece of equipment and tray of mashed potatoes is donated to the cause. Not to mention the hundreds of volunteers who bring it to life.
While Sandberg and Harvey keep their eye on the process all year, many volunteers begin working in the days leading up to Christmas. Starting December 23rd, there is a whirlwind of activity in gathering refrigeration equipment, tables and chairs, as well as several dozen roast turkeys and hams that will appear on what is called “the buffet line.” Guests who attend receive much-coveted tickets through non-profit agencies, such as Hope’s Door, and are bused to Katonah. For Sandberg and most volunteers, it’s always a family affair. And with good reason.
She says, “My philosophy is that we are not going to get thoughtful citizens unless they start out life as thoughtful people. The dinner naturally begets many questions about who has what in this world. If I’m asked what my secret is to raising my two boys, I say the dinner is my secret.”
Though called a “dinner,” the event encompasses far more in terms of providing a meaningful holiday to those who need it most. Guests are given the opportunity to shop in a kind of pop-up store of gently-used clothing, as well as given several useful and fun holiday gifts. Who gets what? Well, it’s up to the elves. Yes, elves. Head elf Hope Mazzola, who has been volunteering for 12 years, explains that her team of more than 30 people (dressed up to play their role) greets guests and asks the children in particular, what they would like from Santa.
The gift room overflows with coats, pajamas, dolls, elaborate Lego sets, puzzles, books, and more. Kids who would otherwise be empty-handed, leave with armfuls of educational and fun toys. Mazzola says she spends the few days leading up to the dinner working non-stop to organize and sort out her department. This kind of dedication is seen across the board. Sandberg has even taken extra steps to make the dinner environmentally responsible. There is extensive recycling and composting in place, so little trash is generated.
Jamer Breene says, “Everyone behind the scenes is in T-shirts and jeans getting hugely messy. And we’re all happy to do it.”
For the hundreds of local businesses that contribute their food, wares, or services, it’s an opportunity to play an important role in our small community.
Gary Levine of Bedford Bagel & Bakery says, “If everybody did a little something to help, this would be a better world. We take care of people. It’s just what we do.”
And while the guests may appear to be the ones who benefit the most, the dinner resonates with everyone who participates. The atmosphere is one of celebration that shows in the music, laughter, and joy that permeates the event.
Long-time volunteer Frank Iorio says, “It’s a really tough day for some people, and just to hear and see the happiness is what the holidays are all about. This is what makes our community amazing. People reach across. They don’t see barriers they see bridges.”