2017-12-21 / Life in Leelanau

Empire extended family grows close for annual Christmas potluck

By Alan Campbell
Of The Enterprise staff

KIDS GATHER around Santa Claus at the Empire Christmas potluck dinner over the weekend. KIDS GATHER around Santa Claus at the Empire Christmas potluck dinner over the weekend. If Christmas is about family and food, that would explain the continued success of the Empire Christmas potluck dinner.

The potluck was attended by enough members of the Empire extended family to fill every seat in the Township Hall, and included an extra table of home-cooked food.

Toss in a visit by Mr. and Mrs. Claus on a most important day for them, and the potluck may have set a new high mark.

“It was a great success,” said Linda Payment, one of several members of the Leelanau Area Community Center who organize the potluck. “We had about 120 people, and it was a full house. We didn’t have any empty seats.”

While children have been known to steal the show at previous potlucks, it was the Clauses who sat under the limelight Saturday. Their visit, which was arranged by Ted and Bunny Lanham of Kasson Township, came on the Claus’ 50th wedding anniversary.

SANTA CLAUS takes a Christmas request Saturday at the Empire Christmas potluck dinner. SANTA CLAUS takes a Christmas request Saturday at the Empire Christmas potluck dinner. “They were surprised,” Payment said. “The children all hid in the cloak room, so when they arrived the children weren’t visible. Then the children all came out with roses and a card and a gift certificate for them.”

Payment did not know the exact date for the first potluck, but she believes the tradition is about a half-century old.

“It was the community getting together, and Empire was quite a bit more prosperous at the time with more businesses. It was a completely donated dinner with the businesses contributing and people bringing a dish to pass. People brought a food item for the food pantry.

“There were a lot of children so the tradition of having Santa Claus come that night started in the 70s, and continues to this day,” Payment said.

About that same time the loose-knit Empire Community Center group organized, although it ran a parallel path with the independently held Christmas potluck.

“This group was based around children., That’s how it got started, to give the children something to do,” said Payment, who moved to Empire about 11 years ago.

Empire resident JoAnne Beare recalled the Empire Community Center’s humble beginnings.

“When the Community Center first started, three of us met in a church trying to think of activities for teens. It’s not just for Empire, but a big area. We had game nights at Tiffany’s every Friday, and organized the Halloween party that’s been going on for a long time, and now it’s turned into an amazing group.

“They play a background role in just about anything that happens in the village,” Beare said.

The group lost momentum when its founding members’ children left home, but enjoyed a comeback in 2012 when a new set of members became involved. Now the Empire Area Community Center has assumed the role of lead organization for the Christmas potluck.

They have financial help from Deering’s Market in Empire, which supplies the ham for the potluck.

Through the years Santa’s mode of transportation has changed, according to Beare.

“They come on fire trucks and on horses and now they come in cars. There’s quite a bit of history, and the kids just love it,” she said.

Empire Township Clerk Christine Neiswonger said the Christmas potluck unites community members.

“Most of the seniors come, which is great, as well as seeing all the families,.” Neiswonger said.

Payment said the potluck brings together neighbors new and old. And it makes everybody a neighbor.

“I met some neighbors a couple years ago when I sat next to them at the potluck, and I don’t always see them. But I know I’ll see them at the potluck,” she said.

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