The Thanksgiving table service has been cleared, replaced with Christmas decorations. If you’re still looking for more incentive to get merry, the Riverside United Methodist Church’s Holly Berry Fair may help.

The United Methodist Women event boasts sales of artisan wares and specialty foods as well as a children’s shopping room, country store and men’s section (new this year) featuring everything from tools to fishing gear (cue Tim Allen’s ScoobyDoo-esque man coo).

Originally called the Holly Berry Affair, the event began in 1966 as a holiday craft fair and formal Victorian-era tea served by women of the Kezar Falls church, who poured their guests tea from a silver tea service into bone-china cups. Large crowds gathered to buy handcrafts, listen to holiday music and renew acquaintances over a spot of tea. A traditional ham dinner, added a few years later, also proved popular, not merely for what was being served but who was serving it: more than 25 singing male waiters.

Decked in red bow ties, Santa hats and festive vests, the men schlepp platters of baked ham and all of the trimmings to crowds of up to 100, interspersing their action with holiday songs as cued by pianist Colleen Coates.

Coates, 85, recruited the men from the church choir and those she’d worked with in community variety shows.

The chorus usually starts with “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” followed by other holiday favorites, some requested by the audience .

Since Coates plays by ear and doesn’t read sheet music, practices were abandoned long ago.

“Sometimes I’ll go off key and we’ll have to start over again,” said Coates, an apt pianist. “But, it is hilarious and all part of the fun. These men are not a professional chorus. But they are very good. And the audience really seems to enjoy it.”

While the lads are hamming it up out front, the busy cook staff, including Hope Stacey, 75, and daughter Luanne Mudgett, 44, are singing back-up in the kitchen with equal exuberance as they re-fill food trays for hungry dinner guests. The meal is served family-style for tables of eight.

Stacey, a near 60-year congregant, and Mudgett have been part of the fair since its inception. Though, technically, Mudgett attended the premiere event in utero. She was born the following day.

Today, Mudgett oversees the small kitchen crew. She was meticulously trained for the job by the dinner’s originator, the late John Tewksbury.

“The meal always includes baked ham, baked potatoes, green beans, cole slaw, hot rolls and Indian pudding with ice cream,” said Stacey. “One year, someone recommended that we offer a different kind of dessert. But my daughter would have none of that. She prefers to stick with tradition. We have folks traveling here from Fryeburg and other far away places who tell us they come every year just for the Indian pudding.”

Stacey, who in past years has served many roles in the fair, these days has “the pleasure” of making the Indian pudding. She said baking the dense pudding, made with molasses, cornmeal and sweet spices is a near five-hour process.

Stacey also makes half of the rolls for the meal using her mother’s original recipe and an antique six-loaf bread pail. The unit is akin to a butter churn, fitted with a dough hook that Stacey cranks by hand.

“It is a lot of work but I enjoy it,” said Stacey.

The fair runs from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., with festivities resuming at 5 p.m. for a tree lighting ceremony on the church lawn. At 5:30 p.m. there will be the presentation of Christmas hams.

For out-of-towners wondering what to do in the interim hours, Fair Director Judy Ingram of Kezar Falls said that several other holiday fairs are planned in the area, many of them through late afternoon.

 

Staff Writer Deborah Sayer can be contacted at 791-6308 or at: [email protected]