15th annual Christmas Dinner honors family member’s memory

It’s not unusual to remember holidays past, but for the family and friends of Peter Klein, Christmas 15 years ago is still vivid.

“That was the year my son had passed away,” said Peter’s mother, Gladys Bliss.

But it was also the year she and the rest of Peter’s family started the Christmas Day Dinner. Now, the 15th annual dinner will be held in the St. Olaf Church Fellowship Hall from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesday. Close to 300 people are expected to attend what started as a family activity to help 80 to 90 others and remember a lost loved one snowballed into a tradition of much larger proportions.

“It’s just been a great tradition for our family,” Bliss said.

When he was 32, Peter and his brother-in-law were out riding dirt bikes in the woods near Maple Island. All of the sudden, his brother-in-law looked behind him to find Peter was laying on the ground. The accident broke his neck.

“It was pretty devastating,” Bliss said.

When it came time for the holidays, his family was at a loss for what to do.

 

“Christmas had always been a big family affair,” she said, but in light of Peter’s absence, they knew they would need to take a new approach to the family-oriented holiday.

So the community dinners replaced the gifts family members would normally have bought for one another, and they made it the family’s new tradition in Peter’s name.

Today, the family arranges pickups for those who don’t have a car, and even delivers a few meals to the several who are physically unable to leave the house. Guests show no lack of appreciation.

“We have a tremendous amount of feedback,” Bliss said. “People are very, very thankful. They really tell us that throughout the year.”

Putting together the dinner is a lot of work, but there’s no shortage of help. The volunteers consist of all manner of Peter’s relatives, plus family friends and some volunteers from the church.

“There’s probably 35 of us,” she said. “They all pitch in and help. They try to make a point of coming.”

And they almost always do. There are occasionally exceptions, such as when a relative has to work or when they’re living far away. Bliss already knows two of her relatives will have to miss this year; one is teaching in Colombia right now, and the other one won’t be able to make it from her home in Rapid City, S.D.

“We get a lot of it from Hy-Vee,” Bliss said. “They prepare the turkey and ham. That really helps us.”

Thrivent Financial also helps out, making donations to help cover the expenses. Without their help, Bliss said the family would have been unable to keep the event going for so many years.

There is no charge for guests to join, though Bliss asks those interested to sign up by Sunday. Guests can do so in person at the Mower County Senior Center, St. Olaf Church, or by calling Bliss at 507-437-1700.

Peter is remembered as “the fun uncle” by many of his nieces and nephews. Year after year, his photo sits at the punch table during the Christmas Dinner, a reminder of the person who passed away too early but ignited a family-wide movement to help others.

“This is definitely why we do this,” Bliss said. “It is a memorial to him.”

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