Before Larry Ross settled into his generously plated traditional Christmas dinner at the Bay Street Armoury in Victoria on Saturday, he opened up the Tupperware he brought from home and set half his meal aside for later.
Ross was one of about 300 individuals and families who sat down to a Christmas feast of turkey and potatoes from noon to 3 p.m., hosted by the Mustard Seed Street Church and Food Bank with funding from the Times Colonist Christmas Fund.
“It’s fantastic and it’s free,” said Ross, a retired janitor living in a seniors building in Saanich. “I’m a senior and it gets me out of my apartment.”
It was the first sit-down dinner since pandemic restrictions in 2020 turned the event into a takeout affair. The mood was festive with Christmas trees and sparkly decorations and live bands — including the Band of the 5th (BC) Field Artillery Regiment, RCA; Dr. Bones Blues Project; The Ladies of Gospel including Maria Manna; and Peter Bourne.
Tables were draped in white linen and decorated with potted poinsettias — refinements that can be taken for granted when money is not a concern. A children’s craft table covered in crystal-like stickers, glitter, and glue kept youngsters occupied.
Senior pastor Stephen Bell, executive director of the church, said more than 100 volunteers were on hand. It’s important that every person who comes feels “valued and respected” and cared for, he said.
This year marked a noticeably diverse gathering — young families to seniors, those dressed for an occasion and those dressed for outdoor work and living, people with visible physical disabilities and the able bodied, a couple who arrived by car contrasted with a young man who packed his take-away food into his shopping cart containing two suitcases and a duffle bag.
Treska Watson, director of operations at Mustard Seed, said the wider audience this year reflects more people needing community and connection since the height of pandemic restrictions.
“The other reason we’re seeing a more diverse population — more families — is the same thing we’re seeing at the food bank, a lot of people are in need this year who maybe weren’t in years past, a lot more working families, double-income families where we’ve not seen that before,” said Watson.
This year’s meal focused more heavily on further reducing barriers to the meal.
Victoria Mayor Marianne Alto said the diverse gathering is “quite indicative of what’s happening in society in general with cost of living rising and inflation being really high.”
“So it’s nice to have an event like this where you can come and join your friends, meet new ones and have a great meal — and it is a great meal — and have that sense of safety and security and nourishment and warmth.”
Ross, whose raspy belly laugh punctuated every sentence, uses the Mustard Seed Food Bank on Queens Avenue when he “gets short on food” and visits for a bowl of soup at lunch on cold days. Sometimes he pops in on Saturdays for bingo. “It’s good for the soul to get out of your house,” said Ross. He believes Mustard Seed “changes lives.”
Petar Zivkovic, 82, and Maria, 68, together 17 years, attended Saturday for the community connection.
Zivkovic, who attends Mustard Seed Church and volunteers there, was moved to tears talking about the work it does — “hundreds and hundreds of meals every week” — beginning with ordained minister Gipp Forster, who founded the church in the 1970s. “It was just him,” said Zivkovic, as his tears streamed down his cheeks and his wife said “don’t cry.”
Chris Pollock, 45, began serving potatoes at the event as a child with his parents and the “magical” element of the service has been with him since. “There’s a movement of love experienced at moments like these … it’s a wonderful place to be able to serve at Mustard Seed … it’s a whole community of us.”
The return of the sit-down meal and new noon to 3 p.m. meal time was meant to give people more time to relax and accommodate people who would otherwise have to leave early to arrange a place to sleep or put children to bed.
In total 500 pounds of turkey, 300 pounds of potatoes and 300 pounds of squash and Brussels sprouts, 100 pounds of spinach, 250 pounds of stuffing and 100 litres of gravy was prepared.
Mustard Seed chef Chris Hammer said with a few ringer chefs including his partner Ali Ryan and a week of food preparation at the Mustard Seed commercial kitchen, the dinners were cooked to perfection.
There were take-away options and food that wasn’t served was delivered to people living downtown, with the rest frozen for meals next week.
On their way out the door, guests were given Rogers’ chocolates. Children’s bags included chocolates, candy canes and more.
The Times Colonist Christmas Fund — aiming to raise $1 million in donations this year — gave about $75,000 to the Mustard Seed Street Church and Food Bank this year. The bulk of that pays for individual hampers to individuals and families but it also includes the food that is purchased for the community Christmas meal, about $14,000.
How to donate to the Times Colonist Christmas Fund
• Donate online. Go to timescolonist.com/donate, which will take you to our Canada Helps page. It is open 24 hours a day and provides an immediate tax receipt.
• Donate by mail. Send a cheque to the Times Colonist Christmas Fund, 201-655 Tyee Road, Victoria, B.C. V9A 6X5.
• Donate by phone. Use your credit card by phoning 250-995-4438 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday.