Christmas dinner with Nick canceled

December 09, 2003|by LAURA ERNDE

After 17 years and thousands of free turkey dinners, there will be no Christmas With Nick this year.

Founder Nick Giannaris said that for health reasons, he can't host the popular Christmas feast that has drawn up to 1,500 guests each year.

"I'm sorry I couldn't," said Giannaris, 79, who has been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.

Key volunteers for the holiday luncheon at Giannaris' Four Points Sheraton hotel said they have mixed feelings. They're sad to see the tradition end, even though they are looking forward to spending the holiday with their families for a change.

"I have a 16-year-old daughter I've never spent Christmas with," said George F. Turner Sr., who donated his taxi service and later his van service to bring people to the Dual Highway hotel each of the 17 years.


Ed Lough, who coordinated the hundreds of volunteers, said the holiday won't be the same without seeing people at the dinner, some of whom he only saw once a year.

"It's going to feel like there's a little piece of the holiday missing," he said.

Hagerstown Mayor William M. Breichner acknowledged Giannaris for his generosity and said the restaurateur has put a lot of work into the philanthropic event.

"I think it's time the community recognize that and give Nick some time with his family. He deserves it," Breichner said.

Giannaris said he will spend the day with his six grandchildren, who range in age from 18 months to 10 years.

Turner said he hopes other people and community groups will step forward to fill the void.

"I'd like to see those folks shine for a while," he said.

Bethel Assembly of God Church in Hagerstown welcomes anyone to attend its dinner, which runs from noon to 3 p.m. at 515 E. Wilson Blvd., said organizer Ed Kennedy.

Like Christmas With Nick, the church dinner mainly is for those who are poor or don't have anyone with whom to spend the holiday.

Being a church, Bethel also has a somewhat different approach.

"We're showing them the love of Christ and letting them know they're not alone," he said.

Bruce Shank, executive director of the Union Rescue Mission in Hagerstown, said he's not sure how the loss of Christmas With Nick will affect the homeless he serves.

The mission serves meals every day to those in need.

"For those who are really hungry, there's meals around. Washington County's very fortunate. There are a lot of people serving the needy," Shank said.

Last year, Giannaris said he had second thoughts about sponsoring the dinner after reading that one man brought his family so his wife would not have to cook.

But Turner and others convinced him there were plenty of people who truly were unable to prepare a special meal for themselves or their families.

Organizers never kept statistics on how many people ate at Christmas With Nick or the value of the donated food, toys and volunteer time.

In 1986, the first year, about 300 people were served. Over the years, it grew to as many as 1,500, plus home- delivered meals, organizers said.

Last year, a snowstorm limited the number to between 600 and 800.

Naida Miller, 68, who has attended Christmas With Nick every year for the last decade, said she will miss sharing the meal with her husband and friends.

"I didn't know Nick personally. I thought it was a wonderful thing for him to do," she said. "We'll always think of him every Christmas around dinnertime."

This year, her friend probably will cook a ham at her Walnut Towers apartment to celebrate the holiday.

While the dinner has provided a great community service over the years, volunteers deserve to have a break, Turner said. It remains to be seen whether the dinner will be resurrected in some form in the future.

"For everything there is a beginning and for everything there needs to be an end," he said.

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