For one man, having nowhere to go on the 25th of December led to one of the most powerful examples anywhere of a community’s Christmas spirit.
The story begins with a blanket of snow covering the gardens of an old Tudor style manor in the Kent countryside. It is 1970.
Adrian Catran is feasting on a New Zealand Christmas dinner with lamb and mint sauce, roast pumpkin, kumara and all the usual hot and cold midday dinner and pudding traditions of our own country, but in the picture-perfect setting of a white Christmas in England.
Turn the clock forward a year, and he is in Brisbane, sweltering in 40 degree heat with his trousers rolled to his knees, feet in a public fountain. He is completely alone, and lonely.
While enjoying Christmas dinner many years later in Thames, the memory of loneliness and isolation shrouds Adrian like a winter fog, and his appetite vanishes.
“I said to those beside me, ‘I don’t know about Christmas. I feel really stink sitting here eating food when there are people out there that have none.” Someone replied: “Why don’t you do a dinner?”
This is a tale about the spirit of Christmas and the community of Thames.
On the Monday after that Christmas in 2010, Adrian told a friend, Don Snowden, about hosting a Christmas dinner for anyone who had nowhere to go. With this, Don plucked $50 from his pocket and handed it over. Adrian was now committed.
A media man named Warren Male then introduced Adrian to the owner of the local Pak n Save supermarket, and Bill van Damen donated food. A young woman chef from Tairua heard about the idea, and called to say she wanted to cook.
In all, 20 volunteers gave their time on Christmas Day 2011 to feed 45 people at the St James Church Hall in Thames, and five Thames folk formed a trust, registering their charity with pro bono work by a local solicitor.
A couple of years later, two ladies brought their skills from the marae to the St James Church Hall kitchen and the meals were cooked by 11am. They then baked giant golden syrup puddings in tins, and dinner plus pudding was ready by noon.
Local musicians The Tones played music for 80 guests who’d arrived for a meal, on foot, by mobility scooter, by Mercedes Benz.
In the following years, those who had no other way to get there were delivered by the St Johns Ambulance’ community van. Aroha Catering baked 200 mince pies and volunteers kept coming. They crafted decorations and hung them about the hall, formed teams to serve food onto plates and to deliver them to up to 185 guests.
A single mum sits with her two children aged under five, and the eldest boy’s eyes grow like soup plates when he sees the food heading his way.
There was ham, hogget and mint sauce, roast kumara, boiled potatoes, peas, carrots, cauliflower and broccoli in a white sauce, and steaming hot gravy. Trifles arrived in glass goblets accompanied by Christmas mince pies made by caterers named love, and non-alcoholic punch flowed.
Anything left over is boxed up to take away.
People with very few possessions sit beside the comparatively wealthy; elderly folk with no family chat with backpackers; there are kids growing up in a house where Christmas is just another struggle of a day, and one volunteer speaks to every soul present.
Nothing is wasted, no-one is turned away, everybody is welcomed. All of it is gifted by Thames.
A retired church Minister was moved to comment: ‘This is the most amazing event ever for a community to put on.’
And the moral of the story is this: If you have nowhere to go on Christmas Day this year, there is A Place at the Table for you, in Thames.