MURPHYS — Merrymakers have been throwing a free-to-all Christmas Day feast in Murphys for so long that most folks here don’t even know how or when it started.
“We’ve been doing it forever,” said Sean Krpan, 18, who was setting up tables Monday in the Native Sons of the Golden West Hall on Main Street.
Even some who have been volunteering since before Krpan was born are unsure.
“None of us know,” said Ray Beaudreau, a retired teacher who is part of the committee that organizes the Murphys Friends Christmas Dinner.
According to newspaper clippings from decades past, the first Murphys Friends Christmas Dinner was in 1981, and about 30 people attended.
That first dinner was intended to help those in need of a meal. But over the years, it quickly evolved to a community gathering with anyone and everyone invited.
“It’s a fun event; you meet people from all over the county,” said Merita Callaway, 71, the Calaveras County supervisor whose district includes Murphys. “We have lots of presents for kids.”
The Friends Christmas Dinner happens largely outside the normal systems of money and authority. Most of the 60 turkeys and all of the labor are donated.
“There is no money that really exchanges hands,” Beaudreau said.
And it’s hard to figure out who is in charge. Some, including Beaudreau, say Callaway is the boss, or at least heads up the organizing committee.
Callaway denies it.
“I just make all the phone calls – ‘Come on, let’s get together,’ ” Callaway said. “I’m just part of the team.”
Still, Callaway admits that after decades of not being in charge, she’s thinking about recruiting someone else to not be in charge.
It should be a fairly easy event to not manage for whoever takes that role next. A network of private people, businesses and government agencies each handle a sliver of the work.
Those 60 turkeys? Most are donated by Diestel Turkey Ranch in Tuolumne County.
Some of the turkeys roast at the nearby Murphys Historic Hotel. Some spend the night in the kitchen of the Calaveras County jail in San Andreas. When the turkeys get bailed out Christmas morning, volunteers drive them directly to the party.
Other turkeys cook at Calaveras Senior Center in San Andreas or at the local Moose Lodge. The state prison system’s Vallecito Conservation Camp bakes thousands of cookies.
Organizers say 600 to 700 people show up at the hall to celebrate and feast together.
Beaudreau, meanwhile, coordinates a small army of additional volunteers who deliver meals to hundreds of other people unable to come to the hall in downtown Murphys.
Those volunteers make deliveries all over the county from about 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
It makes for a long day, but Beaudreau, like other volunteers here, said he’d rather be on his feet at the community dinner than anywhere else.
“It sounds corny, and perhaps that’s why I do it,” he said. “It is perhaps the best Christmas present you could ever give yourself.”