HAGERSTOWN -- Nick Giannaris had a few friends over for Christmas dinner yesterday.
Actually, it was more than a few -- more like 1,200. That kind of thing happens when you befriend an entire community, as Giannaris has, and extend an open invitation to anyone who would like to come and share the holiday.
"Christmas with Nick" has become a tradition in this Western Maryland town -- as dear to the small army of volunteers who help put the fete together as it is to needy families and the elderly or just plain lonely folks who come to enjoy food and fellowship.
Now in its 12th year, the event is held at the Sheraton Four Points Hotel, which Giannaris owns. He opens the hotel ballroom, where those who come get plates piled high with turkey and dressing, ham, succotash, mashed potatoes and gravy, and pie and cake.
"They don't have to be poor to come over here," said Giannaris. "Anyone home alone can come here and share a meal with someone else. This day means something to a lot of people. To sit home by yourself, it's not so nice."
About 300 eager volunteers do everything from distributing toys to youngsters, to setting tables, serving food, washing dishes and sweeping floors after the last guests are gone. The food and toys are donated by area businesses.
George Turner, a close friend of Giannaris', makes sure that everyone who wants to come can get there. He owns Turner Taxi in Hagerstown and dispatches his fleet of cabs to pick up people for a free ride to the hotel.
The Washington County bus system also picks up residents from senior-citizen complexes.
For the elderly and shut-ins who couldn't make it to the dinner, the taxi drivers and volunteers delivered another 350 free meals yesterday.
Turner talked about the first year Giannaris decided to hold the dinner, after a business group contacted him to see if he would cook some turkeys the group wanted to take to needy people in the area.
"Nick seemed a little surprised there were in fact people in this community that were hungry during the holidays," Turner said. "He said, 'George, if you bring them, I'll feed them.' The first year we probably had a couple of hundred people."
Another long-timer, Ed Lough, is an insurance agency owner who coordinates the volunteers. He said they look forward to helping at the event.
"A lot come back year after year," Lough said. "Once they come and experience this, they want to come back. We leave here every Christmas feeling great about the experiences we've had here."
The volunteers are people such as Robert Ragland, 34, a truck driver whose first job as a teen-ager was working as a dishwasher at Nick's Airport Inn, a popular Hagerstown restaurant that Giannaris owns.
A regular volunteer, Ragland arrived at 6 a.m. with his three children -- Robert, 14, Mark, 11, and Heather, 10. By mid-morning, he was mashing potatoes in a large mixer in the kitchen while his daughter helped prepare salads and his sons did other jobs.
Ragland said his wife planned to join them after finishing work at a local nursing home.
"It's really good to come out here and help people and show we care about them on Christmas Day," Ragland said. "You know, it ain't how much money you got that matters, it's the kindness you got in your heart. I believe that 100 percent."
Another volunteer, Clyde L. Grossnickle, an 85-year-old farmer from Frederick County, said he has been doing volunteer work there the past six Christmases and thoroughly enjoys it. He showed up at 7 a.m., arriving before Giannaris.
Until his wife died last year, Grossnickle would do his volunteer work and then prepare two plates to take with him. His ailing wife was in a nursing home, and he would bring the food there so they could eat together.
Lola D. Moser, 77, who was wiping down silverware and getting ready to start serving food from trays in the ballroom, said she has been coming for eight years.
"I feel it is rewarding," Moser said. "You see some sad situations. It's wonderful that he [Giannaris] has done this for so many years."
Turner said everyone who volunteers "has stories of people they have met there who helped them rediscover the meaning of Christmas." He said he won't forget people like the woman in her 90s who called him over to her table one year.
"She said, 'I just wanted to thank you and Mr. Nick for what you're doing. If it was not for this meal, I'd be sitting in my room looking at the four walls.' Oh, my God, I almost cried.
"This meal serves a lot more than just one purpose. There are needy people, but what we forget is there also are a lot of people who are lonely, and that is almost as bad, if not as bad, as being hungry for the holiday."
A Greek immigrant, Giannaris is regarded as one of Hagerstown's leading philanthropists. He has led fund-raising drives for civic causes and been involved in other charitable activities.
"Nick's always been a philanthropist," Turner said. "Back when he didn't have anything, he was giving things away. Nick is only a phone call away. If you need him for anything, he's always there."
Giannaris said his parents taught him about helping others. He remembered how his mother would prepare plates of food at Christmas and have him take them to needy neighbors when he was growing up in a small Greek village.
When he moved from Harrisburg, Pa., to Hagerstown in 1961, Giannaris borrowed money to buy a tavern that is now Nick's hTC Airport Inn. He bought the Sheraton in 1980. "What I did only can happen in America," he said.
"This community's been good to me. I thought it was time to give something back to the community."
Pub Date: 12/26/98