My friend Kelly owned a small cafe called Big Ruby’s. It sat 40 people at full capacity, and was a real neighborhood meeting place in a lower class neighborhood with a middle class fringe. It was the type of cafe where good and interesting food was well presented for very modest prices. It had ambience, and provided the feeling of a big night out for those who would save up for a special dinner, and was “the” place to go” for a great cheap meal for those who found eating out more often more affordable. Their yam fries were to LIVE for.
Rewind to Christmas 1997. Dan, the cook at Big Ruby’s had a crazy idea – that Christmas dinner should be available to anyone in the neighborhood who didn’t have a place to go. On him. After a year of watching people walk past the cafe, he knew “the hood” and the people that never came in. Kelly fully supported the idea, but had already made plans to go away to visit family out of town – so he handed Dan the keys and said “Make it Great – use what you need”. Dan put up the money for two of the largest turkeys I had ever seen, a hundred plus pounds of potatoes, and everything else needed to make a traditional Christmas dinner. All he needed was someone to serve the plates and help do dishes and clean up.
As a Wiccan, my holiday is Dec. 21st, the Winter Solstice – and given that I was a retail store employee, Christmas Day was usually for sleeping in, soaking my feet in Epsom Salts, eating well and resting up for Boxing Day. My family is all out of town, and with no time off, visiting them was out of the question It was a “day in” with my partner, my cats, and some rented movies. When Dan told us about his plan – Jacinthe and I looked at each other, and said “We’re there”.
Dan arrived early that morning to get the food started – he didn’t want any help peeling all those potatoes. We arrived shortly after lunch, each with a change of clothes in case of Tragic Serving Disasters and a pair of very comfortable shoes. We put some holiday decorations on all the tables, helped with the prep work, set up the beverage service area for expediency and put big signs in the windows of the cafe – “Free Christmas Dinner – all welcome – 4 pm – love, Big Ruby”. I called some of the shelters and social services hotlines to let them know what we were doing. I also called the youth and adult hostels, thinking that people travelling might not have anywhere to go. I called the crisis lines, the emergency health lines and anyone else I could think of that might be in contact with those in need. At 4 o’clock, we opened the doors and waited. For about 30 seconds. The door opened.
The first person in was a young man who had a light jacket, no mitts and no scarf. He had been waiting outside for a while he said. He stood in the foyer, rubbing his hands together and said “hey, the sign says free dinner – what’s the catch?” No catch. We seated him, brought water and a coffee, and within minutes Dan had put together a perfectly plated traditional Christmas dinner – turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, turnips, peas & carrots, cranberry sauce, and a slice of Christmas fruitcake for dessert. It was the first of over 100 perfectly plated Christmas dinners Dan the Super Chef produced from the kitchen that day. Our guest looked around, and said “I can’t pay for this” and we patted his shoulder and said “Courtesy of Big Ruby” and left him to eat in peace. Others were arriving.
The next group crowding the doorway were a group of 6 kids – I’d guess ages 16 to 5. We put them in the big booth in the window, and brought them dinner. They ate slowly, carefully – and then I realized that their hands were cold. Instead of coffee, we gave them big mugs of hot chocolate, rich with milk. The littlest one fell asleep, his head on the window, gravy on his chin, boots kicked off. The eldest brother asked if they had to leave right away, and we told them to take their time. Warm up. Have some more to eat.
An elderly woman, frail as porcelain was leaning on the doorframe of the foyer – a little unsteady on her feet. We seated her, and helped her off with her coat, her hands were shaking so badly that she had trouble with her buttons. Her clothes were shabby, but clean, she was wearing some costume jewelery that was missing a few stones, her nails were polished, and her makeup had been brightly applied-colorful streaks due to unsteady hands. She folded her shaking hands to say a small prayer over her steaming plate of food, and asked, very quietly, if she could please have “English tea” instead of coffee. We pretended not to notice the little bottle of amber liquid she poured into the metal teapot, but just kept filling it up with hot water and brought her an extra teabag. She ate with delicacy as if she were at a formal banquet, and sometimes mumbled quietly to herself. We weren’t sure who she was talking to, perhaps memories of Christmases past in better times.
More arrivals. A steady stream of curious hungry hesitant people. We seated people together if we could, because it is more enjoyable to eat “with someone” than alone. It also allowed us to seat more people. No one minded having someone to share dinner and some conversation with, it seemed. The Christmas music played softly over the fragments of conversations, but the predominant sound in the room was the clinking of silverware on plates, and the gentle thudding of coffee cups being put down on the tables. Followed by that special sound of the holidays – the deep sigh of contentment that follows a good meal eaten slowly in a place of peace, comfort and joy – possibly more peaceful, comfortable and joyful than where some of these good people came from.
Our first guest had carried his own plate to the counter and asked if he could take some food to a friend of his who wasn’t able to leave her rooming house. We packed up two full meals, wished him Merry Christmas and he went out into the night. Our family of children were finally warmed up enough to finish their meals. We asked if there was anyone at home, and they said “just our mom, and she’s drunk.” We packed up food for them too. We even packed up some less than choice turkey parts (no bones) for a pet at home. The old man’s hands were trembling with joy when I gave him the two take home containers, with the top one labelled “Toby” – he hadn’t asked, but all he talked about was his dog – the only family he had in the world.
The ever present question was “Is it really free”? Yes. It is free. We had to work hard to convince one sweet older woman, who smelled of an abundance of rye whiskey and a shortage of soap that she didn’t have to pay, do dishes, or even pray (her big concern) “I won’t say grace – God doesn’t love me” she snarled with her chin jutted out and eyes blazing under the brim of her stained acrylic toque). Are we from a Church? No. Do we own the cafe? No – the owner is letting us use it. Do they have to do anything? No. No payment – no prayers – no exchange required. Just enjoy your food, and Merry Christmas. Is there anyone at home or in your building that needs a Christmas dinner? We started asking that question of everyone. We packed up as many meals as we served.
The cafe kept filling up. If there was no one in the foyer, people lingered and had a third or fourth cup of coffee. But at those times when all seats were full, or a larger family group would arrive and there weren’t enough seats “together” for them, people would either finish their meals, or simply move themselves over to another table to join make a three-some a foursome so we could bus the table for the new arrivals. There were timid smiles, the occasional handshake between newly made friends. We cleared plates and poured coffee and hot water for tea. One person offered to wash dishes. We gave her another piece of fruitcake instead.
People kept coming in a steady stream until 7:30 pm. Old people, young people, people who were obviously homeless, people who looked like they might be “the working poor”, people with their children, children without parents. Some people were in absolutely filthy clothes, or visibley hadn’t washed well in a while. Some were just shabby, threadbare, underdressed for the weather, with holes in the toes of their shoes. No hats, no mitts, no scarves. Thin jackets. Multiple layers of t-shirts, collared shirts, hoodies and a jean jacket. Some better dressed, or the children were well insulated against the cold, but the mother or father had a thin cloth coat – so you know where the priority spending was. All of them hungry, and many not just for a hot full meal – many of them were hungry for companionship – conversation – and a moment of grace or maybe graciousness. We treated them like paying customers. We wanted them to feel like our guests.
We poured coffee and tea. We provided seconds on request. We packed up meals for those at home. We send many people out with steaming styrofoam cups of coffee, loaded with sugar and cream. From time to time, we would seat people, or serve plates and take a moment to listen – to hold a hand, to touch a shoulder. Then the three of us would go hide in the back for a minute and share the stories we were being told and have a bit of a cry – then wipe our faces, put on our holiday helper smiles, and get back to seating, carving, serving, busing and washing the dishes.
The stories were unique and the same. I am alone. My husband died this year. My wife has Alzheimers and is in a home and I have no one to share Christmas with. My children are far away. I can’t afford food like this. I have no heat in my apartment. I live in a shelter. I don’t live anywhere. My mom is drunk. My dad ran away. My son doesn’t speak to me. I lost my job and my benefits ran out. Thank you for the best meal I’ve had in weeks – months – years. Thank you for doing this. Thank you for caring. Jesus loves you. Happy Holidays. God bless you. Thank you. May I hug you. Thank you. God bless you. Merry Christmas.
A group of people came from one of the hostels. We moved the tables so they could sit together, and they sang Christmas Carols in German after their meal. They left a $20 tip, and one word written on a paper napkin – Danke. Sometimes we would find a quarter, or two under the plate when we cleared it. A couple cabbies showed up – and asked if the free dinner offer applied to them to. Absolutely. Every cab driver that came in for a meal made a significant donation to the cause – they just appreciated a hot meal and a moment of connection on a very busy day. We tried to give all the tips and donations to Dan to offset the expenses he had incurred, but he put it all in the Winnipeg Harvest donation can on the counter.
Our first guest showed up again with some friends in tow. They looked rough – really rough. Our new “old friend” could see our apprehension behind the smiles and he winked and said “Its okay, they’re with me” and the six of them settled into the big booth by the window. We still had an abundance of food – so we made big “man-sized” plates for all of them. Our first customer ate another meal. We asked how his friend enjoyed her take-out dinner, and his eyes misted up and he looked deep into his coffee cup. “she says thanks, eh and Merry Christmas. I found another friend who is living under the bridge for the other one, eh. He says thanks too. He was too drunk to walk here.” His friends never said a word, just tucked into the food on their plates with the careful gusto of someone who hasn’t had a big meal in a long time and knows that pacing themselves is the wisest course of action on an unsteady stomach. They shook our hands before they left with another meal packed up under their arm. They never met our eyes.
As the evening wore on, we kept sending food home with as many people as we could – especially the families. One mother of 3 started to cry when I put down a big bag full of carefullly wrapped takeout containers and said “For tomorrow”. Our goal was to have no leftovers. At 8 o’clock we took the signs out of the window and started a slow cleanup around the last of our guests. When the last guest was done, we wished them Happy Holidays, and locked the door behind them, and turned down the “front of house lights”. We had kept up on dishes as the evening progressed, and Dan had cleared and cleaned the kitchen, so we did the final bit of clean up and pack up, washed the floors and restocked the salt shakers and sugar bowls for the next business day.
We were done. Emotionally and physically exhausted – but it was a “good kind of tired”. Big hugs all round, and we turned out the lights, locked the door and put on our warm winter boots and thick winter coats and snuggly heavy mitts and hats and scarves and got in our cars and went to our warm houses and full fridges, and closets full of winter wear. And then I cried for about 2 hours while I struggled with my feelings about the day – the mixture of joy and sorrow – of cheer and despair – of compassion and pity - of caring and daring to share – of seeing people that are often invisible in the business of my middle class life. I have so much. I know it. and I am grateful for it.
This is the story of my favorite Christmas. And I share it not because Dan, or Jacinthe or I did anything special. We simply did what was needed to be done. In many ways, it was no big deal. Really.
It was special because I saw the true joy of giving and receiving. We gave so little – and it meant so much. We gave warmth – of space – of food – of the heart. We nourished people – body, mind and spirit. We were reminded about how much we have and how much we can take it for granted. We treated each person with dignity – welcoming them, seating them, helping them with their coat, chatting with them, giving them the gift of our time in a moment of caring, saying goodbye and Merry Christmas to each person. A different experience for our guests than going to aa soup kitchen, mission dinner, food bank, church basement – all good works of giving that are sadly needed in our world. We tried to take advantage of the unique environment of the cafe to offer “Big Ruby” hospitality. That made it different and special.
To me the stars of the day, the heroes of the story (aside from Dan the Superman Chef – who will be so angry with me that I am telling this story in such a public venue so many years later) – the real heroes were those who were brave enough to come in drawn by a handwritten sign in a window. Who dared to believe in the goodness of people in a world that seems to have disappointed them so often. Those who went back and got friends – or told others in their circle what we were doing – so many people came because someone who had just had dinner told them to come and eat. Those parents who sacrificed for their children. Those children who were fending for themselves because their parents couldn’t help them. Those who dared to dream that they could have Christmas dinner and feel the festivity of the season for an hour or two. They let down their barriers and shared a table with strangers and many laughed and joked and “communed” with others that began the meal as strangers and ended it as momentary friends.
To those heroes – I thank them. For the learning – for the lesson – for the reminder of how fragile life is, and how much I have. Thank you for giving me the best Christmas of my life – better than the mountains of toys I received as a child, better than my first Christmas in my own home, better than any Christmas since. Big Ruby’s is gone now – Kelly moved on to other adventures, and Dan moved on to another opportunity outside of Manitoba. Every December I wonder what happened to some of the guests we served that day. I bless them, and wish them peace and thank them from the bottom of my heart.