When Alice Morgan-Brown and Lillian Jones planned to share an old-fashioned Christmas with folks in their neighborhood, they had no idea how much like the old days it would become.
In past years, the Browns, the Bucks, the Bullocks, the Fosters, ++ the Joneses, the Morgans and the Washingtons -- who are all "related one way or another" -- would celebrate Christmas with dinner and the exchanging of gifts.
This year, they decided to do something different. Believing that African-Americans are the people most hurt by the recession, they decided to share Christmas dinner and gifts with 22 other families -- 38 youngsters and 22 adults selected by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's office. Ms. Morgan-Brown is an assistant city school superintendent.
Once the families and children started coming into the Govans Multi-Purpose Center in the 5200 block of York Road yesterday, they didn't stop. What was supposed to be a sit-down buffet dinner suddenly became a standing-room-only happening.
"This is a real family affair," Ms. Morgan-Brown announced as still another group of guests entered the room at 3:30 p.m. "There are so many more here than we prepared for -- seating, not food -- but whether you're here or in another room, you're all part of the total group."
The kinship of family and the sharing of values they learned as children in South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia were the heritage they wanted to impart to their neighborhood, Ms. Jones said.
"It is a tradition in the South that people help people," Ms. Jones said. "We had a big Christmas tree in the yard and all the families would come and share what they had. I remember my mother giving my gift to a child less fortunate. It was an important lesson. We all entered the helping professions when we grew up."
Ms. Morgan-Brown told a similar story. "All of us were dirt, dirt poor growing up -- so poor we had to use glue or string sometimes to hold our shoes together. But no one ever went hungry. We always found the ways and means to have people eat."
And so it was yesterday. The "soul food" buffet of turnip greens, string-beans with ham, candied yams, rice and gravy, macaroni and cheese and cornbread dressing was planned for 60 and stretched to feed 90. The fried chicken, cranberry sauce and turkey somehow made it around also.
Each child was to receive toys and each family was to receive gifts and bags of groceries. They did. In the hallways, various members of the host families rushed home to retrieve extra gifts they had initially planned for each other.
Decisions were made quickly.
The family motto, said Ms. Morgan-Brown, is "Lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way." Family members did all of that yesterday.
"Alice and I are accused of being a little dictatorial," Ms. Jones said. "Strong-willed," Ms. Morgan-Brown corrected.
Regardless, when either woman spoke, family members responded. As with the food, there were gifts and toys aplenty.
The best gift for them, the two women said, was the way everyone pitched in and helped plan the dinner.
"It was like a family reunion," Ms. Jones said. "Only it was the first time everybody said,'Yes!'"
"We have some young single folks who sometimes make excuses why they can't be at family functions, but everyone is here. There wasn't the slightest disagreement. Everybody said, 'What can I do?'"
"It was infectious," Ms. Morgan-Brown said. "When we went shopping and people heard what we were doing, they started asking what they could do. People at work asked if they could contribute. Despite the recession or maybe because of it, the spirit of giving in the country is there."
Ms. Morgan-Brown said she came up with the idea for the dinner two weeks ago when she mentioned in a telephone conversation with Ms. Jones that she was having a hard time knowing what present to get for one of her nephews.
During that conversation the two women hit on the idea of having a community dinner similar to the kind they had at home in the South years before.
After sharing their idea of limiting gifts to each other in favor of giving to others, everyone chipped in.
Their cooperation and appreciation of one another showed as they put the last minute touches on the dinner. It had been prepared Friday night and was brought to the center yesterday.
In one corner, William Woods and Charles Brown were having a friendly debate about who had the better method for carving a turkey. "Better if it's cold," Mr. Woods said.
James Washington, meanwhile, was testing his recipe for holiday punch -- soda and powdered flavoring. He passed around samples, asking for judgments. Was it sweet enough? It was.
When dinner was delayed because Mayor Schmoke was nearly an hour late, Sharon Jones organized singing contests among the tables, urging each to carol louder than the other.