Those who gave of their time and themselves to make possible a Westport Christmas Day tradition got the biggest gift of all.
The cadre of more than 100 people who worked Tuesday to prepare, cook, serve and clean up the annual Christmas community feast sponsored by Saugatuck Congregational Church agreed that all their exertions were personally rewarding -- the work, they said, embodied the holiday spirit of giving to others.
The Christmas gathering, which attracted a crowd of more than 200 people, took place for a second consecutive year at Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church since the fire damage Saugatuck church suffered in November 2011 has yet to be repaired. The feast now has garnered broad support from other local religious communities, with contributions from seven houses of worship.
Twenty hams, 20 turkeys, more than 600 pounds of vegetables and over 60 pies were prepared for the gathering, according to Randy Christopherson, the event chairman.
"I just feel like I want to do something for the community, or less fortunate people," said one volunteer, Bobbie Herman of Fairfield. "It makes me feel good."
"This is my tenth year doing it," said Emma Mikesh, 16, whose mother Paula was the head chef for the event.
"It's fun, and I get to give back," she said, decked out in a holiday costume topped off with a Santa cap. "There's always a bunch of good people here too," she added.
"It's like an extended family when you come to this," said Christopherson. "Besides serving, you're meeting new folks and sharing Christmas ... and it's now a true community Christmas feast."
"Usually it's very difficult," he said, to find all the volunteers needed. "This year it was quite easy to get them. I think the tragedy ... of Newtown has really brought communities across the country together," he said.
"This is a way to share and get to know your community," Christopherson added.
He said both Saugatuck and Greens Farms Congregational churches has posted online sign-up sheets for volunteers. "I get whole families signing up," he said, adding that he doesn't like to turn anyone away.
"We also ask everybody who volunteers to sit and meet someone and talk to them," he said.
"I just love to come and help the community," said Rachel Goldstein, 16, who sported a reindeer costume. "It's a really fun thing to do."
"They just emerge from the woodwork," the Rev. Alison Patton, Saugatuck's new pastor, said of the multitude of volunteers. "It's a fantastic thing."
"There obviously a lot of labor that goes into this, but I think people are really grateful to be a part of it," she said.
"This is not a lot of work," said Steven Rubel of Westport, who helped on the serving line, ladling gravy. "This is fun."
"I enjoy it," said Jane Mangold of Westport, who marked her tenth year as a volunteer. "You meet a lot of nice people and everyone's so happy. It's a great way to celebrate Christmas."