ST. GEORGE — America’s first Thanksgiving celebrated the colonists’ first harvest in the New World more than 400 years ago, a time when isolated European immigrants and indigenous people shared a meal, thankful for the bounty and for each other.
The time-honored tradition that has endured for nearly five decades was in full swing Thursday in St. George at the facility that previously housed the Red Rock Canyon School, where nearly 225 turkeys, hundreds of pies and myriad holiday trimmings lined serving tables spanning across the dining hall.
This year, with indoor dining no longer an option, the dining hall served as the processing station where more than 3,000 meals were prepared and packaged to either be picked up in the facility’s make-shift drive-thru or enjoyed at one of the outside tables set up on the balconies or lined along the exterior of the building.
Sherman Habibian, the event founder’s son who has continued to carry on the family tradition, said that cars started lining up at 10:15 a.m., and by the time the dinner officially started, there was a caravan of vehicles lined up as volunteers began handing out the meals that would be enjoyed by families at their homes.
A video of the event that includes a clip from Shayli Habibian can be viewed at the top of this report.
In the kitchen, it was all-hands-on-deck as Master Chef Ron Nia, who has been a part of the annual dinner for more than 20 years, was tending to the food. He said it’s the volunteers who work tirelessly in the kitchen that make the dinner possible.
“These are beautiful people I am working with here,” he said. “They take the time to serve their community and contribute to those who need it.”
In fact, Nia said, an army of volunteers showed up to the facility before 9 a.m. Wednesday and worked to get everything set up until well after 10 p.m.
He said the most important element, particularly this year, is the social gathering aspect, which has been removed from many of the activities as a result of COVID-19 restrictions.
The annual dinner was started by Sherman Habibian’s father, Frank Habibian, who was invited to a Thanksgiving meal shortly after immigrating to the United States as a child in the 1970s.
It was the generosity and giving spirit of the St. George community that prompted Habibian to host the annual feast as a way to give back to a community that welcomed him with open arms, and in 1973, his goal became a reality when he hosted the first community dinner.
Little did he know at the time it was a tradition that would continue for nearly five decades, and one that would be handed down to his own children, including his son, Sherman Habibian, who said it is the hundreds of sponsors, volunteers and contributors who play a vital role in making the community event possible, including many grocery stores, private donations and support from small and large business alike.
This year, he said the event garnered even more support — “from everywhere” — and what made it even more remarkable was the fact that many of those businesses were hard hit by the COVID-19 shut-downs earlier in the year.
“We received so many calls from businesses wanting to help,” he said. “And considering everything that has happened this year, it was unbelievable.”
He said they were expecting to prepare more than 3,500 meals this year, and by 12:30 p.m. Thursday, they had already served more than 2,000 of them. More than 900 of those meals were prepared for a number of facilities, including substance abuse treatment centers, care facilities, homeless shelters and even senior centers dotting the landscape throughout St. George.
What came through from a number of volunteers was the importance of gathering as a community, and the social aspect that is so important, not only for those dining at one the the many outside tables, but for the volunteers and other participants as well.
One volunteer, Lynn, said he’s volunteered on Thanksgiving for more than 45 years, 20 of which he have been spent helping in the kitchen during the community dinner in St. George.
Taking into account the unprecedented challenges presented this year, some of which may have prevented the dinner from taking place at all, the event organizers and supporters worked even harder to make sure the tradition continued.
Those efforts fed thousands of people and allowed many to enjoy a holiday dinner who may otherwise have gone without this year.
“Whatever we have to do to make it work and to feed everyone — that’s what we do,” Frank Habibian has said.
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