All year long, Elaine Duquette had prepared for this meal, sorting through recipes and decorating her North Tonawanda home. As her guests walked in, her Christmas tree decided to deck the floor with its boughs, and came crashing down.
It couldn't have happened at a better time.
These weren't just any dinner guests -- they were her progressive dinner partners.
"Normally I'm a nervous wreck when I have company, because I like everything to be just so," said Duquette, an Opportunities Unlimited of Niagara executive, of the 2004 incident. "But we just put it back together, and the conversation went to, 'What kind of a Christmas tree stand do you have?' "
For 20 years now, four couples who met through the former Columbus Hospital, including Duquette and her husband, Jeff, have carried on their own Christmas tradition by starting the holiday season together, progressive dinner style. One course in each household: cocktails and appetizers, soup and salad, entree, and dessert with coffee.
"We trim the house, we get the tree ready, put it up and get it all decorated. You really start getting the feeling of Christmas," said Joe DePaolo, former hospital treasurer, who hosts in East Amherst with his wife, Joan. "When that party takes place, you're really in the spirit -- Merry Christmas."
Progressive dinners -- in which guests travel from table to table, home to home, giving each participant a chance to host -- have fallen out of fashion these days. Where they do occur, they're usually located in a single neighborhood, or apartment building.
Not this bunch. On the second Saturday in December, they make a 43-mile circuit through North Tonawanda, Amherst, East Amherst and Cheektowaga. They usually start by 4 p.m. and get home by 11 p.m., bearing presents from each stop.
In 20 years, they have never been deterred by weather, sickness or boredom. Among the four households, their Christmas dinner tradition has spanned the birth of two children and 18 grandchildren, the deaths of seven pets and the introduction of four new ones.
The couples do see each other three to five times a year otherwise. But the progressive dinner is carved in granite on their annual calendars.
It started, simply enough, with a desire to catch up and see each others' Christmas trees.
One December day in 1991, Duquette had former Columbus Hospital co-workers, with their spouses, over for an Italian dinner. The couples spanned four decades in age, with the Duquettes, the youngest, in their 20s, and Columbus administrative assistant Ann Thomann and her husband Rob the oldest, in their early 60s.
"They were commenting on my tree, which took up half of my living room," Duquette said. "We were talking about seeing everyone's trees and decorations, and Denise said, 'Why don't we do it like a progressive dinner?' "
On the spot, the couples put four courses in a hat, drew them out and promised to do it next year.
In December 1992, they did. Elaine Duquette remembers drawing the entree, and making stuffed turkey breasts in wine sauce. She had never made the dish before, a sub-tradition she carries on to this day.
They usually spend about 90 minutes at the appetizer house, with the couple responsible for soup and salad leaving 30 minutes early to prepare. Roughly two hours there, with the main dish couple getting a 30- to 45-minute head start. Two hours there, and the dessert and coffee people leaving 5 to 10 minutes ahead, because it's easier.
Every year since 1992, responsibility for the courses has rotated. If you had cocktails and appetizers, next year you prepare the soup and salad. "I'm the guy responsible for keeping track of the rotation," said DePaolo, a retired certified public accountant. "In fact, I've already got December 2012 loaded into my calendar."
They all take turns cooking, he said. "The only dish we repeat is when it's my turn for cocktails and hors d'oeuvres -- they love my tangerine beef appetizer," a grilled Chinese skewer.
Appetizers are often accompanied by a feature drink, said Denise DeNisco, a teacher whose husband, Michael, was a Columbus administrator. Sometimes they even fit with the holiday color scheme -- green appletinis, or Midori sours with a red cherry.
No matter what color the drink is, use plenty of ice, suggested DePaolo. "Rather than have an open bar at the cocktail hour, you prepare a drink so it isn't quite so potent," he said. That's one of the tips he gives prospective progressive dinner organizers.
"That's a great idea, ice it down and have one common drink," he said. "If they're going to be driving, I advise them to go light on the booze."
Last year's soup and salad, by the DeNiscos, was a tomato basil tortellini soup, and an iceberg wedge salad with Danish blue cheese.
"What I really like is that you can really spend time on your course, because you're not preparing a whole meal," DeNisco said. "You can put effort into your dish, because it's all you have to do. That's the beauty of the progressive dinner."
The entree can be turkey, ham or pork loin. "It could be lasagna," said Ann Thomann. "It's something everyone will like." When the Thomanns have dessert, Michael DeNisco is always hoping Ann baked one of her famed fruit pies, Denise DeNisco said.
The group has lots of people who love cooking. "I'm the one who doesn't," Thomann said. "I do cook, but it's not my favorite hobby. Twenty years ago, I didn't mind cooking."
Despite having to cook, it's worth it, Thomann said. "Everything is always so nice," she said. "The tables are always set so beautifully, with candles and greenery."
"It kicks off the Christmas season, early in the month, so you're not rushing around 10 days before Christmas," Thomann said. "It's a known thing, so you plan around that. Plus you have November to get ready."
There are a few tips DeNisco passes on to those who ask how they do it.
First, time management is key. Set the schedule, and stick to it.
Second, plan ahead. Plan the dishes, make sure they'll work in the time you have. Duquette likes to use recipes she's making for the first time, but that would backfire on some cooks.
Third, keep it simple. "You're supposed to enjoy it," DeNisco said.
Part of what makes it worth the effort is getting to sit with longtime friends and hear their voices from 20, 30 years down the road of couplehood, Duquette said.
"Everybody has weathered their own little storms," she said. "It's a learning experience for me."
The odd thing about the Christmas-tree-centered event is how many Christmas trees were determined to crash the party. DeNisco one year saw her tree collapse, falling from her Cheektowaga home's bay window the night before the dinner. "I had antique ornaments from my grandmother that just smashed, the dog was under the tree -- just a disaster," she said.
By the time her guests arrived, the tree was beautiful again.
Another year it was the DePaolos' tree. A few days before the DePaolos expected their progressive dinner guests, Joe discovered why the Christmas tree seemed so thirsty.
The stand had a crack in it, so when he watered the tree, he also saturated his carpet and subfloor. "Bottom line, I had to replace the carpet and some of the subfloor. So that was an expensive Christmas," he said.
The DePaolos had the work done in time for the dinner, though. People who hear about the long-lived progressive tradition sometimes ask how they keep it going, said Duquette.
"It's the second Saturday in December, come hell or high water," she said. "You just pencil it in, it's taken, I don't care what you have going. That's the understanding we all have."
But why make it such a priority?
"I don't know if it's the old 'life's too short, you need to make time for these things' that I get from the older people in the group," Duquette said. "That's just the way it is."
It's fair to say that the dinner is almost as much a tradition as the tree, said DeNisco. "I think about how it will stop. I know it can't go on forever. Because it is such a great part of the holiday season for me."
Maybe that makes every edition of the dinner more precious now, she said.
"With our ages, you think about that a little bit more," DeNisco said, "that we have been so blessed to have this, the enjoyment of it all these years."