OGDEN — The weather outside was frightful, but the warmth inside delightful.
The Weber County Library’s main branch played Christmas Eve (afternoon) host to an estimated 500 guests who had no place to go.
The library staff and volunteers provided a holiday meal, camaraderie, entertainment and small gifts such as socks, gloves, and knit hats or scarves, many of which were handmade for donation.
The library has played host on the afternoon before Christmas for at least 20 years, or 40 years, depending entirely on the age of the person you ask.
“I used to play Santa, but I talked to the kids too long,” said volunteer and Ogden resident Bill Higley, 72, who was awaiting his scheduled performance, a pantomime of a snowball fight. “I’ve been doing this for 40 years, and I also volunteer every day, taking tours around, reading stories and doing pantomimes.
“This lunch is a big deal for a lot of people. They start asking me weeks or months ahead if the library is doing it again. For a lot of people, this is the biggest part of their Christmas.”
Kathy Omer, of Ogden, came two years ago, and returned when she heard about the Monday event.
“We come and have Christmas dinner,” said Omer, 50. “We probably won’t have a Christmas dinner on Christmas. We appreciate the library doing this. There are a lot of good people here who are just down on their luck.”
Erin Sanchez, Omer’s daughter, snagged some gloves, hats and socks for her youngsters.
“They’ll make a big difference to us,” said Sanchez, 26, of Ogden. “I’ll probably put them in my children’s stockings. When we came two years ago, the kids got to sit on Santa’s lap, they listened to stories, and they got a gift we took home and saved for Christmas to open. The children got books they enjoyed.”
Revellers streamed in, through the gently falling snow and the 30-degree temperatures. Families arrived with multiple children. Others arrived alone, holding tight to backpacks that contained all their belongings.
Sharon Mitchell, of Red Desert Ramblers, warmed up with her fellow musicians to offer live music to the growing crowd.
“It’s a great opportunity to bring people together in a central location and help them,” Mitchell said. “Music makes the event a little more special.
“People who are struggling with homelessness, mental illness, or who can’t pay their bills, are alone, or are just down on their luck usually can’t get out to hear live performances. Paying rent is their priority, not going to a concert. So it’s nice to expose them to something they can enjoy.”
Small businesses and larger corporations donated dinner, which consisted of turkey, stuffing, gravy, salad, orange sections, cookies and a choice of soda, coffee or eggnog.
“We’ve been working since 8,” said Victoria Young-Burns, librarian. “The gravy was the hardest. It came in big, 60-pound containers, and one spilled in my car. I’m going to be smelling holiday gravy through June, at least.”
Other activities included stories, and a screening of the holiday film “Elf.”
The whole library staff pitched in, along with 55 additional volunteers. People entered the library lobby and got in the meal line, which snaked from the front door and around the buffet servers in the non-fiction section, then back to the lobby, where people sat at one of six long lines of tables to eat. A separate line wove through the children’s section, and allowed guests to choose from new socks, scarves, hats and gloves.
And at the dinner tables, children put orange rinds over their teeth to fake sunny smiles. Parents talked to their friends and the strangers seated nearby. Thales Martineau sat with Gracie, his mixed-breed service dog who helps by predicting his seizures.
“A free meal is great,” said Martineau, 57, of Ogden. “When you are homeless and unemployed something like this makes a big difference. There’s not a lot of work right now. I think it is just wonderful someone would do something like this.”
Perry Choate, 54, of Ogden, rents a home he shares with his two cats.
“My family is doing its own thing and they don’t always invite me,” Choate said. “Something like this helps when you’re living payday to payday. I’ll spend Christmas with my cats. They’re like my babies, but all they want is food and attention. It’s nice to be here with friendly people who really care.”