VENTNOR — Even though Maria Tricoche was surrounded by 40 women she did not know this time last year, she said she was happy to be surrounded by her family.
"To me, I think it's a blessing for us," Tricoche, 48, said of the annual Christmas luncheon for the Atlantic City Rescue Mission's Women's Ministry Department held Tuesday at Sage Restaurant.
This will be Tricoche's first Christmas with the mission, and Tuesday was her first time enjoying the festive meal with other mission residents.
Sage owner Lisa Savage and a group of her friends started the event 16 years ago. Savage, Mays Landing resident Nicole Scull, and other volunteers continued that tradition Tuesday, gathering to give needy and homeless women at the shelter a holiday moment many said they wouldn't forget.
Tricoche was one of those women.
"This is a moment to remember," she said in between bites of warm lasagna and mashed potatoes. "Especially when you're with your family, and this is my family right here."
Savage, who cooks the meal and helps organize the luncheon, said the event involves giving back to those who do not celebrate the holidays in a traditional manner.
"It's been a great event." Savage said as salads were being served and Christmas carols were sung in the background.
While turkey may be a staple of Christmas dinner, turkey was off the luncheon's menu — the women said they were tired of eating turkey.
"There's definitely no turkey," Savage joked.
Instead, this year's meal included roast pork loin, lasagna, vegetables and mashed potatoes.
Scull is glad the Christmas tradition — begun by a group of friends wanting to give back to the community — is so well received each year.
"It touches the heart," she said. "I think we learn something every year."
Ashley Avoil, 22, was Christmas-ready Tuesday, wearing a red coat with a single jingle bell hanging around her neck. Also enjoying her first holiday meal with the mission Tuesday, Avoil said she was overwhelmed by the event because she was not expecting such kindness from strangers.
"This was much bigger than I thought it would be," she said.
Event volunteers, including restaurant staff, said the luncheon spread holiday joy to everyone in attendance. Yianni Papaspanos, the restaurant's head server, was waiting tables for the fourth consecutive year.
"We have a good time with the ladies," Papaspanos said. "It's really nice to see a smile on their faces."
Contact Caitlin Dineen: