"I think it is wonderful to get all the elders together like this," said Tlingit elder Rosa Miller, 84, as she straightened her homemade Santa hat.
Miller's hat featured Raven and Eagle lovebirds. Across the table sat her eldest daughter, Antoinette Houston, 66, who wore a similar piece.
"One year we all sang Jingle Bells in Tlingit," Miller said.
Miller and Houston were sitting with nearly 500 other Juneau senior citizens who were being waited on hand and foot by over 40 Juneau United States Coast Guard Chiefs , Master Chiefs and their families Sunday at the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall.
"Many of our personnel don't even know this event exists until they are stationed here," said USCG Chief Dana Warr. "We all share each others' excitement each year when we do this. The seniors in the community talk about this for months and we are so happy to be able to do this. It is our way of saying 'thank you' for treating us so nicely in their community."
Organized by the Juneau Coast Guard Chiefs, with help from members of the Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer's Association Juneau Chapter, the 37th annual Senior Citizen's Holiday Dinner is rumored to be one of the largest annual Christmas gatherings in Juneau.
Tlingit Harold McKinley, 75, and Inupiat wife Gloria, 73, first met while attending Sitka's Mt. Edgecumbe High School. Today, they have attended "more than they can remember" of the Coast Guard dinners.
Said Gloria, "It is nice because there are so many people that we haven't seen in a while and so it is nice to get together like this."
Bob and Marcella Stutte, 89 and 88 respectively, have lived in Juneau for 68 years and have attended the event each year.
"You see everybody you know," Marcella said. "It is beautifully done, and seeing all these people enjoy being here makes our hearts burst."
The Juneau Senior Citizen's Holiday Dinner began in 1973 when Master Chief Petty Officer Carl Constantine, Senior Chief Petty Officer C.T. Barger and a group of USCG Petty Officers stationed in Juneau at the time decided to do something positive and special for Juneau's senior citizen community. The first dinner was modest with the Chiefs hosting about 40 senior citizens at St. Anne's Hall. Today, with the help of local business and organizations who contribute to the event each year, 350 to 500 seniors annually take part in the feasting of holiday cheer and entertainment. One such organization is the Military Spouses Association, that took photos of the seniors and made them into personalized Christmas cards.
"We are truly thankful to the local businesses and organizations that generously donate," said Master Chief Petty Officer Jeff Sawyer, president of the Juneau Chief Petty Officers Association. "We are happy to be involved in continuing this dinner event for a very important group within our community."
Louise Tyner, 80, whose husband was a warrant officer, has checked coats at each and every one of the 37 dinners.
"Seeing all these people being happy and the coast guard truly happy to be able to do it is like being a little kid at Christmas again," Tyner said. "And there are always nice activities to go along with."
Entertainment for this year's dinner featured the Children of all Nations, the Highland Dancers, the Juneau-Douglas High School Chamber Choir and the Circle of Light.
Attending dignitaries included Santa Claus, mayor Bruce Botelho and Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard, most senior enlisted officer, from Washington, D.C., Michael Leavitt. Leavitt planned his Alaskan tour of coast guard stations around this dinner because he had heard so much positive reaction to it.
"I had to see this for myself," Leavitt said.
Retired Chief Dennis Mathers, a former USCG radio operator, cooked over 35 turkeys for the third year in a row.
"It is a time all the chiefs can get together and show appreciation," Mathers said. "That is what makes this so much fun."
Added Master Chief Sean McPhilamy, "Getting stationed here in Juneau was a tremendous gift. The military moves in and out. Getting the chance to say thank you to the community is something we look forward to each year."
Contact Klas Stolpe at 523-2263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.