NORTH ADAMS -- Joe Cariddi, a 69-year-old veteran of American Legion Post 125, summed up the annual "Be Our Guest" dinner perfectly in one sentence: "It’s a good meal and good company."
The 57-year tradition is a group effort to ensure that no one in Northern Berkshire goes without a hot meal on Christmas Day. Doors opened at 11 a.m., and guests filled the dining room until the early afternoon. The menu included turkey soup, baked ham, mashed potatoes, vegetables and pie for dessert. In addition, each person received a bagged lunch to take home. Dinner chairman William Schrade Sr. said 289 meals were delivered around Northern Berkshire and Southern Vermont, and nearly 200 people dined at the hall.
Cmdr. Dennis St. Pierre said the dinner started off small when it first began in 1955.
"It was just a handful of guys then," St. Pierre said. "And a few years ago, we served over 700 people."
While attendance at this year’s dinner didn’t reach that number, organizers see that as a positive thing.
"This is what I want to see," volunteer Dennis LaBonte said about the attendance. "Hopefully that means they have places to go."
LaBonte, who has volunteered to cook the dinner for 30 years, said he’s seen the menu change over the years, also. The main course was turkey for the first 55 years, he said.
"It was a lot of work, and there was a lot of waste," he said.
A 20 pound turkey, LaBonte said, wouldn’t yield 20 pounds of meat, and thawing and cooking the turkey took a lot of time.
All in all, this year’s dinner used 240 pounds of ham, donated by Williams College, and 30 pounds of turkey for the soup.
LaBonte said the annual event never fails to bring him holiday cheer.
"I like to see smiles on people’s faces," he said. "I can go to any table and find the same people at the same table they sat at last year."
St. Pierre said without volunteers and donations from organizations like the Eagles and the Elks, the dinner would never happen.
Some volunteers arrived at the post as early as 6 a.m. Volunteer Tammy Lussier was dressed as Mrs. Claus as she greeted guests and handed out bagged lunches. Lussier, who’s worked with the elderly for 31 years, said helping people is very important to her.
"I just enjoy giving and seeing them happy," she said. "It makes you feel good. You forget what problems you have."
Among the many guests were local politicians. City councilor-elect John Barrett III said he comes every year and enjoys simply talking to the residents while they eat. The spirit of the event, he said, shows just how caring the community is.
"We’re making sure people have a place to go," he said. "We’ve always been a community that comes together."
Mayor Richard A. Alcombright spent the better part of the dinner chatting with guests, shaking hands and enjoying a good meal. He said he felt the atmosphere at the dinner was very reflective.
"A lot of the conversations I had today were related to family life," he said. "... About what people were going to do later today. But others were very serious."
Alcombright said many people expressed sadness over the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14 and the death of two firefighters in Webster, N.Y., on Dec. 24.
State Rep. Gail Cariddi, D-North Adams, donned a Santa Claus hat and helped serve food. Cariddi said many guests have given back to the community, and she enjoys giving back to them.
"This makes my day," she said.
To reach Edward Damon, email email@example.com.