BRATTLEBORO -- The annual Charlie Slate Christmas Breakfast is traditionally a time to come together with friends and family and share a meal on Christmas morning.
For long-time volunteers the breakfast has become as much a tradition as singing carols and opening presents.
This year the annual community event became a way to honor Judy Flynn, who organized the meal but died last week, as well as a way for her family to get through a very rough Christmas.
"We knew we had to do this for Judy. We had to be here regardless of everything," said Charlene Anderson, Flynn's sister and daughter of Charlie Slate, who started the breakfast 33 years ago. "We've been so busy we have not had time to dwell on the sadness. It's a great way to shift gears."
Last year long-time volunteer Deirdre Baker said she was going to stop organizing the annual free community meal after eight years and Flynn agreed to work with Baker this year and then take over the breakfast with her family.
Flynn helped organize all of the volunteers and started collecting food even though she knew she was battling cancer and might not be around in 2014.
She died unexpectedly on Dec. 17.
And so the free Christmas breakfast, which is held every year in honor of Slate, who died in 2008, gave the Slate family a few hours, at least, to focus on something else.
"It really touches our heart to have so many people come together to remember dad and Judy," said Jim Slate, Judy's brother who came up from North Carolina. "These are tears, but they are tears of thankfulness."
All morning crowds moved in and out of the American Legion on Linden Street, sitting down to a big plate of pancakes, eggs and sausage.
Volunteers, who take time out of their own holiday, set the tables, cook the food, serve the plates and then give out bags of cookies to anyone who wants one as they walk out the door.
Ben Macdonald grew up in Brattleboro and now lives in Burlington.
He took the train down on Christmas Eve and had to get back on to be at work later Christmas day but he said it was important for him to be there to help out in the kitchen.
"It seems like it's the right thing to do," he said. "It's a ritual. It feels good to help out."
Baker was looking forward to sleeping in this year and spending the morning with her family, but after Flynn died the family asked her to be there Christmas morning and she could not say no.
She says she will work with the family this year to make sure everything is taken care of, but she does hope to spend next year at home.
Throughout the meal Wednesday Baker offered the Slate family members tips on how to keep the crowds flowing, the kitchen up to date on the number of diners and other little pieces of advice gathered over the past nine years.
Flynn's daughter Jadi Flynn, confirmed that the family was going to organize the meal next year.
She said during her mother's last days her mother was as concerned as much about the meal as anything else and Jadi said she promised her mother that the Slate family would not allow the community meal to stop.
"I promised her we were going to carry this on for her and dad," Flynn said. "It was so important to mom. We'll all get through this and we'll be here next year."
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; or 802-254-2311, ext. 279. You can follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.