In 1964, 238 local men gathered in the high school gym (now the middle school gym) to become Elks. Of that charter group, only 11 are left. One of their lasting contributions was the creation in 1965 of a Christmas Day dinner free and open to all.In 1964, 238 local men gathered in the high school gym (now the middle school gym) to become Elks. Of that charter group, only 11 are left. One of their lasting contributions was the creation in 1965 of a Christmas Day dinner free and open to all. Lloyd and Waneta Kennett pictured above.

MORE THAN JUST A MEAL

Elks’ Christmas Day dinner the gift that keeps giving

By ANDREW MCGINN

a.mcginn@beeherald.com

Members of the Jefferson Elks Lodge had a special treat planned in 1965 for those in the community without anywhere else to go on Christmas Day.

A chance to see the latest episode of “Flipper” in color.

In all actuality, the special treat was a first-of-its-kind complimentary turkey dinner for anybody without anyone to share the holiday with — now a tradition that continues to this day.

But in the local press on Dec. 21, 1965, it was announced that the event would also feature the era’s latest luxury: color TV.

Meaning that you could eat your roast turkey like a king and then watch the continuing adventures of your favorite bottlenose dolphin, like royalty, in color on NBC (hey, with only three channels on a Saturday night in 1965, pickings were slim).

The Elks have served and entertained scores of local residents every Christmas Day since.

Five and a half decades in, the annual Christmas Day dinner hosted by Jefferson Elks Lodge 2306 has become the lodge’s largest undertaking of the year, with volunteers preparing 10 15-pound turkeys, six whole hams and two dozen pumpkin pies.

But if that’s news to you, and it very well could be, consider yourself among the fortunate — you have family to surround yourself with, and the means to afford a traditional holiday dinner.

Elks member Joyce Fister can’t help but still be surprised by the number of people who attend.

“I never grew up in that type of situation,” Fister explained, “so I didn’t realize the need for it.”

Last Christmas, the Elks served dinner to more than 200 guests in-house and prepared an additional 64 takeout meals.

Elks Exalted Ruler Steve Smith isn’t exactly sure how many to expect this year — except a lot.

“The food pantry has been hit hard,” Smith said. “Maybe we’ll have a lot more people.”

The price of admission remains unchanged since that first event in 1965: absolutely nothing.

“We do it for the good of the community,” Fister said.

Attendance has quadrupled in the 54 years since the event started.

The Jefferson Herald on Dec. 30, 1965, reported that about 45 people took the Elks up on their invitation to have Christmas dinner at the lodge, a National Guard armory just a few years before. The Hardinettes 4-H Club volunteered as waitresses.

In a sign of the times if there ever was one, the Herald’s report ran on the same page as a friendly seasonal reminder from the American Insurance Association about the importance of keeping ashtrays in every room at holiday time to prevent burns on tabletops and rugs.

There’s obviously no smoking today at the Elks Lodge, but not attending the Christmas Day dinner if you’re alone may actually be as harmful to your health as smoking 15 cigarettes.

Researchers have found that loneliness and social isolation are as damaging to health as smoking nearly a full pack a day, making it more dangerous than obesity.

Loneliness is now seen as a growing public health issue — an epidemic even — in a society that’s more connected than ever, yet somehow not connected at all.

Two in five people feel isolated from others, and one in four say they rarely or never feel as though there are people who really understand them, according to a 2018 survey of 20,000 Americans by health insurer Cigna.

Nearly half of those surveyed — 46 percent — reported feeling alone.

In announcing a strategy in 2018 to combat loneliness in the United Kingdom, then-Prime Minister Theresa May called loneliness one of the greatest public health challenges of our time. May’s government estimated that around 200,000 older people across the United Kingdom hadn’t had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month.

Since 2018, the U.K. has even officially had a minister for loneliness.

There’s no way the members of Jefferson’s Elks Lodge could have predicted the turn society would take — but the Christmas Day dinner now seems ahead of its time and more vital than ever.

The yearly attendance figures attest to its importance. Not even blizzards will keep people away.

“In talking to them,” Smith said, recalling his initial surprise at the number of people present, “they just had nowhere to go.

“They’re here for the community.”

According to one press report, the idea was spurred by “Lefty” Weinknecht, proprietor of the Jefferson Cigar Store, who told Dane Kious about a free community dinner in his native Minnesota.

Lefty apparently felt that communities did a lot for kids, but tended to overlook adults in need.

In 1965, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks was just a year into its charter in Jefferson, having formed in 1964 with 238 members. The club purchased the armory soon after.

A founding member of the lodge, Kious took Lefty’s suggestion back to his fellow Elks, and instead of a Christmas teen dance featuring the Bushmen — which the Elks had sponsored in 1964 for Greene County youth — a new event was born.

Kious, who died in 2017 at age 86, served as the event’s first chairman, a fact totally unknown to daughter Rosie Tucker, the owner of Sensibly Chic.

“We had no idea he was a good guy around town,” Tucker said, half-jokingly. “Dad was the type who would take Mom to church and he’d sit out in the parking lot and read the paper.”

Today, Fareway donates the hams, and Hy-Vee donates the turkeys.

“It’s a big undertaking,” Smith said, adding that it’s unique to Jefferson.

Bingo (with prizes) was introduced in the ’70s and is now the go-to after-dinner entertainment.

“You want to provide a place that’s warm and friendly,” Fister said.

For some of the Elks — now 263 in number from a high in 1974 of nearly 600 — there’s only one place to be on Christmas.

“We never plan anything on Christmas Day,” said Fister, wife of longtime Elk Les Fister. “Christmas Day, we come up here. And it feels good to be able to do something for someone else.

“That’s the true meaning of Christmas.”

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