Vineyard Christian Fellowship handed out a unique gift last week: five nights of food and mirth.
"Everything done tonight has been done for you," Pastor Kevin Ballard told the dinner show guests before the first performance of the play A Comic Country Christmas last Saturday. "This is our Christmas gift to the community."
More than 600 people attended the free event that continued nightly through Wednesday.
Each program began with the Highway 41 Drama Company entertaining diners with popular Christmas songs sprinkled with a "down home" flavor, as they enjoyed a complete chicken dinner and dessert.
Then it was time for the play.
"People get caught up in the mayhem of life and forget about the real meaning of Christmas," Ballard told the guests. "Every family has some Christmas mishap they can laugh about years later. That's the case with Buster and Martha Smith."
As the curtain rose on Scene 1, it was three days before Christmas and Buster and Martha, played by Don Stewart and Debbie Bradburry, awaited the arrival of their children and grandchildren for a traditional Christmas homecoming.
The couple reminisce about Christmas 1955, when their youngest son, Ernest, who still believed in him, hid Santa in their attic. In reality, Santa was a bank robber using the innocence of a child to provide him with a place to hide out.
In Scene 2, the story flashes back to that Christmas past when the residents of Blackwater, Tenn., had fallen on hard times. A radio in the Smith home announces that two men wearing Santa suits robbed the local bank.
Meanwhile, a younger Buster and Martha (Terry and Twilla Sponholz) supervise their three children, who are preoccupied with thinking about Christmas presents.
As the family scurries to and fro with holiday activities, the youngest child, Ernest (Britton Ballard), is alone in the house when he is confronted by one of the robbers (Sunshine Boyle). Convinced that he has met the real Santa Claus, Ernest arranges for the gangster to hide in the attic.
Scenes 3 and 4 present a hilarious look at the family and some of their friends and neighbors who make the hustle and bustle of Christmas a reason for merriment. "Santa," who keeps running into children at the house, concocts amusing stories to explain his presence. The family attributes noises in the attic to giant rats.
Soon, a rumor that the money from the robbery is hidden somewhere in town causes the people of Blackwater, including Buster, Buster Jr. and Ernest, to search frantically for it in order to collect the $1,000 reward.
Buster is disappointed when he doesn't find it, and the reward goes to someone else. He laments not being able to provide a good Christmas for his family until Martha reminds him of the real meaning of the holiday.
"The biggest gift," she says, "is when God gave his son."
Suddenly, the children remember that getting gifts isn't the most important part of Christmas.
Even Santa, who overhears the conversation, is touched. Learning that the stolen money has been recovered and his partner has been arrested, he decides to turn himself in and resolves to start his life over.
Before he leaves, he has good news for Buster. He tells him that there is a $10,000 reward for his capture.
Scene 5 returns to the present with an update of all the characters' lives and the safe homecoming of the children and grandchildren.
The curtain descends over a happy scene of family members gathered once more to enjoy the holiday.
"Our greatest Christmas gift to you," Ballard said to the audience in closing, "is to remind you that Jesus Christ is God's eternal gift."
The play was directed by Debbie Gillespie. Actors included Jonathan Enright, Aaron Butterworth, Meriah Perry, Ruth Ballard, Gerri Allender, Breanna Enright, Shawna Butterworth, Mellissa Boyle, C.J. Reid and Harold Reid.
The church will offer another free dinner after a candlelight service at 5 p.m. Christmas Eve.
Shows, concerts, tours and more
Christmas programs abound. Several are being presented at local churches:
* First Assembly of God will present its third annual Christmas Pageant at 6 p.m. today and Sunday.
Admission is free, and a nursery is provided for infants to 3-year-olds. Doors open 30 minutes before the program, and seating is limited. The church is at 5735 W Gulf to Lake Highway, Crystal River. Call 795-2594.
* Bethel Baptist Church will present the Christmas program "Come to Jesus" at 11 a.m. Sunday.
The program begins with a teacher assigning a group of youth to find out what it means to come to Jesus. As the young people study the Scriptures and ask questions of adults in the church, they find out that though Christ lived on earth almost 2,000 years ago, men and women of all ages can still come to him today.
The church is at 2289 N McGee Drive, Hernando. Call 726-1095.
* Four Tickets to Christmas will be presented at 7 p.m. Dec. 15 and 16 by First United Methodist Church of Inverness. It's a family musical that reminds viewers of the new beginnings of their lives each year as they celebrate Christ's birth.
The music will include solos, choirs, a barbershop quartet, ragtime and parlor music, and both new and traditional Christmas music.
Set at Christmastime in the early 1900s, the drama features the Singing Richmonds and tells the story of what happens when the family goes home to their family farm. There they discover new relationships and heal old ones.
"Jesus chose to be born in a simple way, which serves as a great reassurance to us that he does understand us," Pastor Kip Younger said in a press release. "This story, and its music, reminds us that he loves us exactly as we are."
The church is at 3896 S Pleasant Grove Road. Admission is free, and nursery services are available. Call 726-2522.
* North Oak Baptist Church will present The Christmas Journey from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday through Dec. 17. Guests will gather in the sanctuary to sing Christmas carols before touring a live re-enactment of the life of Jesus, from the prophecy in the Old Testament through the Resurrection, culminating with a choral presentation of a musical called The Rose.
Tours last one hour and leave every 15 minutes. The church is at 9324 N Elkcam Blvd., Citrus Springs. Call (352) 489-1688 or 746-1500.
* Seven Rivers Presbyterian Church, 4221 W Gulf to Lake Highway, Lecanto, is offering an Advent event for children in grades K-2 each weekend in December during the worship services at 6 p.m. Saturday and 9 and 10:50 a.m. Sunday.
Bethlehem Village will give children a view of what Bethlehem was like at the time of Christ's birth. Call 746-6200 or visit www.sevenrivers.org.
* All the free tickets for the "Singing Christmas Tree" at Crystal River First Baptist Church, 700 Citrus Ave., are gone. Performances are at 7 tonight and at 2:30 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Call the church at 795-3367 to see if any seats become available.