There’s nothing more traditional than spending Thanksgiving with your family – right? Not necessarily. Remember, the first Thanksgiving wasn’t Norman Rockwell’s family Thanksgiving. It was a community harvest celebration shared by English Calvinist immigrants – the Pilgrims – and Native Americans.
“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors,” wrote the Plymouth Colony’s governor William Bradford in his journal. “Many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted.”
So it’s justifiable to say that the most traditional way to celebrate Thanksgiving is as a community. For almost a decade, Santa Clara’s public-spirited Marsalli family – four generations of them now – and a growing team of volunteers has been doing just that: cooking and serving a bountiful and free Thanksgiving feast for hundreds of people at St. Clare’s Church. This year they served about 750, included take-out dinners for those who couldn’t get out and organizations like Bill Wilson Center’s group homes and residential centers.
The guests are both families and those who find themselves estranged or far from family, immigrants and the native-born, the affluent and those living hand to mouth, children and great grandparents like Larry and Elisa Marsalli themselves. They all had one thing in common: pleasure in sharing the holiday with others.
As she does every year, Elise Marsalli entertained on the piano, playing the kind of old-timey songs that are never out of fashion; and somehow, everyone knew the words and sang along with “You Are My Sunshine” and “That Old Gang of Mine.”
“It’s the people – it’s friendly,” said Sofia Martinez, who’s been coming to the community Thanksgiving for four years. “I love it. I come every year.”
The festive community dinner means as much to the people who cook and serve as it does to the guests. This was Fred and Liz Marota’s fourth year helping to put the event on. “I believe in doing this,” said Liz as she poured coffee. “We have to take care of each other.” She echoed Martinez, saying, “I love it.”
“People – that’s what makes it so nice,” said family patriarch Larry Marsalli, a former Santa Clara Mayor, City Council Member, and volunteer firefighter; founder of the Italian American Heritage Foundation; chairman of the Parade of Champions for its entire 50-year history; and chair of the non-profit Marsalli Family Foundation. “Everyone has been so generous. We get checks in the mail from people we don’t even know.”
Planning and preparation starts weeks before Thanksgiving. Cooking – 36 turkeys this year – starts early Thanksgiving week, using family recipes for roast turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes. Thanksgiving day, the kitchen crew is at their posts by 6 a.m. They started serving at 11 a.m.
For information about Santa Clara’s community Thanksgiving, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call Larry Marsalli at (408) 296-1791. Donations are welcome year round.