ELGIN, Neb. — It's about tradition, and renewing family ties. It's about pie, and playing games after you're more stuffed than the turkey.
It's about little kids on a whipped-cream high, grandmas with soft laps and cousins who haven't seen each other in years.
Every year since 1925 — more than eight decades — St. Boniface Catholic Church in northeast Nebraska has engineered such a gathering smack dab on Thanksgiving Day, and the whole community is invited.
A legion of parish volunteers will serve turkey and the works on Thursday to 1,200-plus diners in Elgin, a town of about 700. It will be the church's 88th annual Thanksgiving Bazaar, perhaps making it one of the oldest among churches that sponsor annual dinners. Many churches and community groups have those dinners in the fall, or even in the week leading up to Thanksgiving, but a spot check found fewer than a dozen across the Midlands held on the actual holiday.
The Elgin dinner has its roots in a parish potluck on Thanksgiving Day in the early 1920s, letting church members socialize and see old friends. The parish decided to fix a bigger meal, invite the public and turn it into a fundraiser in 1925.
The meal at the St. Boniface gym is the only Thanksgiving dinner many people have ever known. Extended families of two dozen show up and fill entire tables. Empty nesters find a spot with friends.
If you sit down at a table and don't know anyone, expect someone to extend a hand, said Michele Reicks, parish business manager.
The event draws people from northeast Nebraska, but also from Omaha, Lincoln and as far away as Colorado who grew up in Elgin and return for the tradition.
Dwaine Peetz, a retired doctor in nearby Neligh, belongs to another parish but has attended the St. Boniface dinner with his family nearly every year since 1955.
The gathering, he said, gives him a chance to support a fellow church, and see old friends and former patients.
He said the meal is his family's Thanksgiving dinner, and the spread is top-notch.
“The food is amazingly good,'' he said.
The event, which raises $45,000 annually for the parish, is a lot like your Thanksgiving — only bigger.
Compare your grocery list to this cart-buster:
42 turkeys. 53 gallons of corn. 18 gallons of cranberries.
Plus a whole lot more.
More than 400 volunteers play a part. You'll find pie-bakers, pie-cutters, turkey-cookers and Jell-O-makers. Servers and cleaners and plenty of pan-washers
Planning and preparation are the key, said Sandy Kallhoff, a parishioner in charge of the food.
“The Lord takes care of the rest,'' she said.
No detail is too small.
How many bottles of dish soap are needed for cleanup? Three.
Number of 33.9-ounce coffee canisters? Four.
Cool Whip containers? Thirteen.
No one leaves hungry.
Adults pay $10 for a self-serve buffet spread across four tables stretching 40 feet. There's way more than turkey, including some ethnic specialties.
Try the ring sausage, made from a secret recipe, which has been a tradition since the church first served the meal in 1925.
Scoop up sauerkraut simmered for hours with pork off the rib, a dish reflecting the German heritage of many Elgin residents.
Sample the homegrown sweet corn sliced off the cob.
Grab a piece of pie, whether it's pumpkin, cherry or banana cream.
Even though diners don't need reservations, the parish never runs short on food, and leftovers are slim.
Kallhoff keeps the grocery list on a computer spread sheet. About a month before Thanksgiving, she brings the list to Dean's Market, a locally owned business that has served Elgin for more than six decades.
Owner Dean Schrage starts filling the list, which covers items big and small: 20-pound turkeys, mini marshmallows and even a roll of Scotch tape for posting signs at the dinner.
He stuffs more than 50 boxes. Parish volunteers will arrive in pickups at 1 p.m. Tuesday to haul the food to the church.
“Things go smooth,” Schrage said.
At 6 p.m. Tuesday, volunteers lay tarps over the shiny gym floor. From 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., parishioners set up 8-foot long-tables, 48 in all, and 360 folding chairs. Workers follow a computer-generated layout showing exactly where everything goes.
Wednesday at 8 a.m., volunteers make the lemon Jell-O salad with grapes, shredded carrots and diced celery.
At 5:30 a.m. Thanksgiving Day, crews start cooking sausage and pop turkeys in the oven. Dinner runs from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and the parish feeds an average of 420 people per hour.
Like individual families who enjoy board games after the meal, people play bingo at St. Boniface.
Kids play carnival games like dart toss and duck pond. Folks try their luck at the cake walk, and buy raffle tickets for a quilt made by parish women. You can go high-tech and buy a ticket to win a Toshiba laptop or more than 100 other prizes.
At the first dinner, the grand prize was a $50 Shetland pony
St. Boniface, and the grade school and high school tied to the parish, are important anchors in Elgin. The 125-foot-tall steeple of the Gothic-style church is a landmark, easily spotted when you drive north into town on Nebraska Highway 14.
The church's Thanksgiving dinner has gone off every year, even when snow swirled and ice storms hit. Some years, men have picked up snowbound volunteers in four-wheel-drive pickups.
About 25 years ago, a storm knocked out power on Thanksgiving, and volunteers fired up a generator to keep the lights on and the food warm.
The dinner keeps running decade after decade because parishioners learn early that volunteering is at its heart.
Starting in sixth grade, parish children help, clearing tables and working at the carnival games.
Juan Hoefer has volunteered ever since she was a young girl. The 82-year-old, whose first name is pronounced “Ju-ann,” will run the quilt stand this year and is among the oldest helpers.
Moms and dads make sure the kids volunteer, she said, because their own parents encouraged them.
Reicks, a lifelong parish member, said that spirit will keep the St. Boniface dinner alive.
“It's generation to generation.”
Contact the writer: 402-444-1122, firstname.lastname@example.org
St. Boniface Thanksgiving Dinner and bazaar
565 pounds of ring sausage
1,625 pieces of pie/dessert
27 gallons of sauerkraut
15 gallons of Jell-O salad
18 gallons of cranberries
53 gallons of corn
1,400 dinner rolls
When: Thanksgiving Day
Where: St. Boniface Catholic Church, Elgin, Neb.
Dinner served: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Menu: Turkey and dressing; ring sausage; potatoes and gravy; sauerkraut and ribs; cranberry salad; Jell-O salad; corn; dinner roll; beverage; homemade pies and desserts.
Prices: Adults, $10; Kids ages 6 to 12, $5; ages 2 to 5, $3; under 2, free
Activities include: Bingo, carnival, cake walk, raffle drawings
Other large-scale meals being served Thanksgiving Day
» St. John Lutheran Church Fellowship Hall in Seward offers a free community dinner starting at noon.
» First Presbyterian Church in St. Paul sponsors a free dinner for the public; this will be the eighth year. Hours are 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; delivery and takeout available.
» The Morrill Farmer's Market vendors and community members host a dinner from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the American Legion in Morrill. Free and open to the public.
» St. John Lutheran Church in Ord serves a free dinner at noon.
» The annual KNEB “Thanksgiving in the Valley” dinner will be served from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Guadalupe Center in Scottsbluff. Free and open to the public.
» The Kearney Area Concerned Citizens expects to serve about 1,500 at its 28th annual free community dinner. The meal will be served from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Kearney.
» Denison Baptist Church hosts a free meal from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
» The annual “Thanks-Living” dinner at the Shenandoah Elks Lodge will serve about 550 from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Omaha
» The Salvation Army will sponsor its 18th annual TurkeyFest in Omaha. Volunteers will come to the Salvation Army at Kroc Center, 2825 Y St., to collect turkey dinners to deliver to 1,400 Omaha Housing Authority residents, homebound elderly and near-homeless in the metropolitan area. Deliveries begin about 9:30 a.m.
» The Siena-Francis House shelter expects to serve 500 homeless for the Thanksgiving meal, starting about 4:45 p.m.
» The Nat Hunter Masonic Lodge #12 will, for the 40th-plus year, prepare and deliver 500 meals to residents of Omaha Housing Authority towers.
» The Stephen Center expects to feed about 300 people on Thanksgiving, residents of its shelter and people in its treatment program.
» The Open Door Mission will serve more than 2,000 meals to the hungry and homeless. Thanksgiving Brunch will be from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m., and Thanksgiving Italian Feast from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.
» St. Peter Catholic Church will serve its fourth annual free “Thanksgiving Dinner for the Homeless, Poor and Lonely” from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the school gym at 28th and Leavenworth Streets. Last year more than 300 meals were served.
» Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church hopes to serve 100 free dinners from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. to families in the neighborhood who are facing difficulty. The church is at 30th Street and Curtis Avenue.
Compiled from staff reports and the World-Herald News Service