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Destitute diners await their turn outside the annnual Watsonville Salvation Army Christmas dinner Tuesday. (Dan Coyro/Sentinel)

WATSONVILLE -- Wearing a red apron festooned with snowflakes and a cheery Santa hat that said "Kiss Me," Audrey Carrithers handed out plates and forks at the annual Salvation Army Christmas dinner.

"Merry Christmas," she said as people came to the table to pile their plates high with turkey, rice, beans and salad.

Carrithers and other members of the All Saints Episcopal Church serve dinners here throughout the winter, as she's done for almost 30 years now.

"Today, because it's Christmas, we have a lot of extra help," she said, gesturing to the volunteers serving food and cleaning the kitchen.

Christmas conjures up images of family and large meals, but for those in the community without family or who have fallen on hard times, the Salvation Army's holiday dinner provides a slice of holiday spirit.

Volunteers led dinner attendees in a round of Christmas carols before serving the food, their buoyant voices filled the small, green room of the Grant Street facility. "Jingle Bells" moved into "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" and "Feliz Navidad," with "Joy to the World" finishing the repertoire off. Tables were decorated with red and green tablecloths, and a prayer was recited in both English and Spanish.

Most of the people who came to dinner were single men, and old friends greeted each other as they settled down to eat.

For William Stewart, the dinner provided him a chance to be around other people and in particular, other Christians, he said.


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Stewart, who grew up in Florida and has no family in the U.S., said he recently moved to a shelter in Watsonville because he couldn't afford Santa Cruz anymore and he began to feel isolated here.

"It's dangerous to be by yourself during the end times," he said.

Stewart, 40, said God had recently told him to give up surfing and to get his life on a better track. He's now working to move into a Christian men's home where he hopes to surround himself with like-minded people.

Then, he hopes, maybe he will be able to find what he has asked God for -- a wife, and perhaps a family.

"It's very important to be with people whose hearts are with you," he said.

And although he said he felt at peace Tuesday, there was a hint of sadness as he recalled Christmas Days of the past.

"Christmas was different 20 years ago," he said. "People were happier."

Follow Sentinel reporter Jessica M. Pasko on Twitter at Twitter.com/jmpasko96