Nathaniel Jordan, a 69-year-old D.C. resident, has eaten free Christmas dinners from charitable groups around the world. But he rates the one Thursday at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Northeast among the best.
"This is very nice," said Mr. Jordan who dined on a traditional Christmas dinner at a quiet, softly lit table with flowers, place mats and silverware. "This is my first time back in six years and it's still very nice."
Indeed, the Basilica's cafeteria on this day looked more like a two-star restaurant than a facility that would serve roughly 740 meals over several hours - 200 more than last year.
Jacquelyn Hayes, a Basilica spokeswoman, said the hundreds of volunteers who helped serve the meals did everything possible to make their guests feel special, despite the tough economic times.
"This is restaurant quality. Everybody who comes is taken to their table by a hostess," said Miss Hayes, standing next to a volunteer maitre d' intently working a seating chart. "We try to make it a nice, warm event. This is a beautiful day."
Mr. Jordan, wearing a bow tie and overcoat, sat with Shirley Robinson of College Park and dined on turkey, stuffing and sweet potatoes while a choir sang traditional Christmas songs such as "Silent Night" and "O Come All Ye Faithful."
Lorna Santotome sang at midnight Mass with her parish choir. But there she was the next afternoon singing "Angels We Have Heard on High."
"This is my service," said Miss Santotome," a member of St. Mary of the Mills in Laurel. "I love to sing."
Said Miss Robinson: "I have no family in the area. It's nice to be around people."
Gabrielle Brock, 31, said she started volunteering a few years ago, after yet another Christmas during which she felt unfulfilled by merely buying and giving gifts.
"I said this is ridiculous," said Miss Brock, a State Department employee. "We are a nation of volunteers. This is the right thing to do at Christmas. I see people doing this with their children and I think, 'If I ever get to have a family I'll bring my children, too.'"
Before settling into his meal, Mr. Jordan reminisced about many pleasant Christmas meals past, including one at the Church Center for the United Nations across from the U.N. headquarters in New York City.
"But I've also had my share of hell," he said.
Thursday marked the 34th year for the charity dinner at the Basilica and that the food was purchased through donations.
Outside, a line of about 50 people formed, and Sister Miriam MacLean calmly looked over the crowd and said, "This is for everybody - the poor, the lonely the homeless and the elderly."