Wednesday will mark the 26th annual Friends of Christmas dinner in Oneonta. The meal will be served from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. at the First United Methodist Church at 66 Chestnut St. Some may not realize it or perhaps have forgotten, but there was a short-lived predecessor to this popular, free and well-attended event. It dates back to 1983.
“Pearl Osterhout is expecting dinner guests on Christmas day,” it was reported in The Daily Star of Thursday, Dec. 22, 1983. “She does not know how many guests she will have or who they will be.”
“But on Sunday afternoon tables will be set and food will be ready for whomever appears.”
At the time, Pearl Osterhout owned Mom’s Minimart, a store she opened about a year earlier at 398 Chestnut St., on the northeast corner of Murdock Avenue, now a series of storefronts.
Pearl played the role of mom to dozens of local teenagers who regularly came to her shop to play pool or an assortment of video games.
“She plans to extend her brand of kindness to anyone without a home or family with whom to celebrate Christmas. Mrs. Osterhout and her husband Warren will host a big holiday dinner at the store, free of charge to anyone who does not want to be alone.”
“I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit,” Mrs. Osterhout said. “I’ve had people coming in here saying they don’t have a place to go.”
Neighbors and friends who learned about the dinner began bringing food to the store.
“We’re going to prepare for twenty,” Pearl said. “If we have to make another ham, we’ll make another ham.”
Mom’s Minimart was busy on Christmas day. Nine people accepted Pearl’s invitation, so in addition to her husband, three children and six grandchildren, the table was crowded.
“It was wonderful,” Osterhout said. “We just ate and sat around and talked. I really enjoyed it.” The nine guests all needed transportation to and from the store, and two neighbors who’d read about the dinner called and offered to give rides.
When asked if the dinner was going to be held next year, Pearl said, “I’d like to.”
Despite the store going out of business, the dinner was held again in 1984, and no doubt the word had spread about the success of the 1983 event.
With 10 volunteers to back her up, Pearl “Mom” Osterhout was able to continue the dinner, nearly across from her old store, at the Elm Park Methodist Church on Chestnut Street. She prepared for an expected 150 guests, but was pleased that 50 showed and the leftovers were given to anyone who wanted to bring the food home.
Pearl said the dinner had grown beyond her ability to do everything herself. On Dec. 21, 1985 it was reported that the tradition had to be abandoned for financial reasons.
“We decided that we can’t really handle it this year,” Osterhout said. “Money is tight.”
While the Elm Park church would’ve liked to continue the tradition, David Rockwell, pastor, said the sudden news came with no time to adequately prepare.
No local organization picked up the tradition in 1986 or 1987. Then a very brief news item appeared in the Star of Monday, Dec. 19, 1988.
“St. Mary’s School will have a shared meal from 12:30 to 3 p.m. Dec. 25 at the school. Transportation will be provided.” A phone number was included.
This new effort was organized by Peg Cawley, Jean London and Marianne Hartmann. A buffet for 44 people was given.
The three women called their organization the “Friends of Christmas.” The dinner became an annual event and remained low-key in publicity. Thirty were served in 1989. But the effort grew quickly; the dinner fed 70 in 1990, and more than 120 in 1991.
“For a while the Friends of Christmas feared they wouldn’t be able to meet the demand,” it was reported on Dec. 26, 1991, “but fortunately, contributions increased.”
“People know times are tough and want to help others out,” London said. “It’s depressing for people to be alone during Christmas, especially if they have no money.” Volunteers and people who couldn’t be with family also found the dinner to be an enjoyable occasion.
By 1991 two of the tireless Friends were more than 70 years old and looking for successors, but still set their sights high.
London suggested that the time may have come for a soup kitchen in Oneonta.
“This is just one dinner out of 365,” she said. “We need to do more.” It wouldn’t be long before a soup kitchen became a reality, as Saturday’s Bread began in 1992 at the First United Methodist Church.
This weekend: We’ll look at some leftover local news items from 1888 that will likely raise a few eyebrows.
Oneonta City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at email@example.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.