OCEAN CITY – Peaches Lukens looked around her living room on Christmas Day 1998 at 11 a.m., taking in the family’s quickly-opened and quickly-disregarded gifts and football games turned on shortly after that.
According to her husband, Mike, she then turned to him and said, “Next year let’s do something different and really make Christmas meaningful.”
He and his father-in-law nodded in agreement. “Then we asked her to move aside because she was blocking the TV screen,” remembered Mike.
Thirty years later what the Lukens couple nurtured over the decades has grown into an institution, feeding hundreds of people each Dec. 25 at a soup-to-nuts, tables-bedecked-with-flowers, music-infused, no-questions-asked holiday extravaganza.
Mike said of the early years, “We started at the Ocean City rec center at Sixth Street, which was not used in the winter, and fed I think maybe 100 people with various donations.
"After a few years, we approached the ecumenical group composed of all pastors in Ocean City who, shocking to us, were not interested.
"However, a couple of people heard what we were doing and offered to let us use the Baptist Church in town. Over time we grew and grew, and again a couple of people prodded St. Peter United Methodist Church to allow us to host the dinner there. The pastor at that time was not receptive initially. But I got a call from him saying that he had sat bolt upright in bed one night and said to himself, ‘What are we doing?’ Ever since we’ve been fortunate to serve our dinner there which has a large community room and expansive kitchen facilities.”
Mike is aided by his daughter Halley Martinez and her two sons, so the Lukens' tradition continues.
“The real work starts Dec. 23 from dawn to late at night when we prep everything we plan to serve. We open the doors to any and all volunteers who want to pitch in as they see a task that needs to be done.
"People are so good-hearted, they want to contribute and help, and this dinner each year gives them a framework to do so. We never really know how many turkeys will be donated, cooked or raw, or how many people will come to eat Christmas dinner or how many will come to serve on Dec. 25.
"Somehow though, each year everything works out; we have never run out of food even when serving after (Superstorm) Sandy hit 800 meals Dec. 25 not including take-home meals which we encourage,” he continued.
Lukens reminisces that there are certain experiences and images that he’ll never forget as a result of the bounty this event attracts from the largesse and open hearts of others. “We have a gift room where you can find anything and everything and take as you wish. One year, a family with three small boys came to dinner, and we later learned they had really become destitute as a result of some unfortunate circumstances, losing their jobs and then their home.
"The boys went into the gift room and came out with three brand-new bikes with the tags still on. I don’t know who donated them, they just appeared in the room, as well as some new clothes and small toys.
"The parents went home with some clothes for themselves and food to last for a week. This experience is what makes everyone want to support the dinner and keeps it going as a tradition.”
Lukens said all are welcome to go to the dinner, either to eat or to help, for 15 minutes, an hour or all day.
“I can guarantee it’s something you’ll never forget, and really is a way to make a difference for those we can easily forget who cherish the support,” he said.
For information on how to help, call Lukens at 609-892-3482.
To contact Camille Sailer, email firstname.lastname@example.org.