The 'essence of Christmas': Community dinner serves hundreds

zmurdock@beaufortgazette.comDecember 25, 2013 

Volunteer Janet Donnelly, of Sun City Hilton Head, right, serves a scoop of stuffing to Betty Nemec on Wednesday at the Community Christmas Day Dinner hosted by First Presbyterian Church.

THEOPHIL SYSLO — Staff photo Buy Photo

The soft sounds of Christmas carols carried over the bustle of dozens of volunteers Wednesday at the Hilton Head Island Christmas Dinner at First Presbyterian Church.

About 15 parishioners led the singing, while volunteers in every corner of the building lent their voices as they hurried trays of rolls, potatoes, green beans and turkey to buffet lines.

"It's truly amazing that people want to give up their Christmas to serve the community," said Wally Willig, one of the event's organizers.

From Dec. 23 through Christmas Day, dozens of volunteers helped prepare 1,200 meals with more than a ton of traditional holiday foods and deserts for the 11th annual Community Christmas Day Dinner on Hilton Head Island.

But just a few months ago, Willig and his wife, Lois, weren't sure the event would happen this year after finding out renovations at The Beach House would leave the dinner without a location. Then, in September, First Presbyterian offered to host it in its recently renovated gathering space and commercial kitchen.

The new location worked out well, with room for volunteers to hustle between stations alongside the dinner's two buffet lines and more than 40 tables, Wally Willig said.

"It's great," he said. "It's clean, it's modern and the kitchen's got most of the equipment we need."

Over the course of the day, volunteers would carve and serve 105 turkeys, he said. But serving that many birds required a bit of a logistics miracle before the meal, he said.

Organizers first purchased the turkeys two weeks ago, but realized they would have to find a way to keep them frozen until the holiday, Lois Willig said. That's when 25 volunteers from Sun City offered to split the turkeys amongst their home freezers, she said with a laugh.

"They were everywhere. It was like the Turkey Express," she said. "This year, everyone is pitching in."

In all, Wally Willig estimates more than 600 people had a hand in the event, from partnering with First Presbyterian to cleaning up the last plate.

The event is supported by in-kind and cash donations, and all leftover food and money support Meals on Wheels and Second Helpings, a local charity that picks up extra food from restaurants and grocery stores to distribute to the needy, Lois Willig said.

That spirit of giving is exactly what draws long-time volunteer Holden Williams to the dinner again and again. Each year, Williams leaves his home in Worcester, Mass., to spend four days with his mother-in-law, who lives on Hilton Head Island.

But on Christmas day, Williams is entirely devoted to serving others, from early food preparations to seating guests during the meal to closing up the kitchen.

"Yesterday I asked myself, 'Why have I volunteered here for eight years on Christmas day?'" Williams said. "The answer is simple: The community dinner puts the Christmas back in Christmas. You can sense the warmth and friendship."

"For me, (this meal) is Christmas," he continued. "It's the essence of Christmas."

Follow reporter Zach Murdock at

Related content:

After tense wait, Hilton Head Christmas dinner finds home, Dec. 4, 2013

Community Christmas dinners: Traditions that break from the traditional, Dec. 25, 2013

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