FRYBURG - Peter and Judy Ackermann have owned and operated PJ's Country Market in Fryburg since April 2015. In that time, they have utilized the store to carry on holiday traditions they started 25 years ago.
The couple first began serving free meals on Christmas day at the Lions Club in Brunswick, Maryland. Then, they continued their custom at a church they attended in Scrabble, West Virginia.
Judy said she had put the word out to local senior centers at the time, looking for anyone who wanted to come to enjoy a holiday meal. She picked up as many people as she could in her SUV and transported them to the church on Christmas Day.
Judy stopped at a Charlestown senior apartment complex. The center had a dining hall downstairs, but it wasn't open during the holidays.
"I remember going in there one Christmas to pick up three women," Judy said. "The lobby was filled with seniors dressed in their finest. I thought, Oh my god, I'm going to have to make several trips.'"
She learned many were waiting for family to pick them up so they could spend the holiday with loved ones. However, the families never arrived.
When Judy returned to the complex to drop off the few who came with her that morning, she became upset at seeing the people who had spent Christmas alone.
"It tore my heart out," she said. "I cried all the way home. I told Peter we have to do something to pull them in."
The next year, Peter and Judy gained permission from the center owners to use its kitchen with the caveat that they must do the cooking somewhere else. They did, preparing food at several different places and taking it all back to be served.
Those who remained alone the year before were able to spend Christmas with friends.
The Ackermanns began the practice of offering free meals on Thanksgiving around ten years ago.
When they bought the former Sara Jane's Deli (Now PJs) just outside Fryburg, the new grocery and deli space afforded them more room to house customers.
Extra ovens and a stove meant the end of having to go back and forth, too.
This year, the store will be rearranged to accommodate as many tables as possible, which is done every Thanksgiving. From 2 to 6 p.m., the store will offer free meals.
Christmas Day dinner is set for 2 to 6 p.m. as well.
Turkey, ham, sweet potatoes, yams, pies, vegetables will be available as part of a conventional Thanksgiving lineup.
Judy said a few family favorites would be thrown into the mix, such as rutabagas or cranberry relish.
"Typically over the last five years we've been serving anywhere from 60 to 90 people," Judy explained, noting the number includes deliveries for shut-ins or people coming in for pick-ups.
Over the years, employees of the store have helped to prepare the store on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Still, Judy told of a woman who had heard about the Ackermann's holiday tradition on the radio. The woman decided to ask if she could help, since she would be spending the day alone.
"She went and did deliveries for us," Judy said. "She thanked us afterward and said we made her day."
"It gave her a cause," Peter added.
The store has received donations on Thanksgiving, which Judy said goes toward another Christmas tradition.
Judy said they contact churches and schools in the area to find out if there are families in need during Christmas.
On Christmas Eve, Peter dresses as Santa Claus and rides in a red, truck- hauled sleigh, delivering gifts to local children.
Lights adorn the sleigh while Christmas music fills what Peter admitted can be at times bitterly cold air.
"One year, we were headed down Route 66 somewhere because there was a family somebody wanted us to deliver to," Judy said. "All of a sudden, I hear all this yelling, so I stop. I'm looking back in the rearview mirror and you can't see the sleigh, there are just people."
A family whose grandfather had recently passed away had chased the sleigh down, wanting to get pictures with Santa.
Judy said the family had told them their grandfather had the most Christmas spirit of anyone they ever knew. When they heard the music, they were met with the sight of Santa's sleigh.
"They said Pap had to have sent Santa to tell us that Christmas is Christmas and to go ahead and celebrate," Judy said. "That was their sign to go and enjoy Christmas."
The couple also spent five years living in Thailand, as Peter had worked in satellite communications and traveled to more than 90 countries through his work. The tradition did not stop.
"We got toys, presents, oranges and candy and took them around to families," Judy said. "It was kind of fun."
Peter said the essence of their long time holiday habits comes down to what the celebrations truly mean to them.
"It's been fun," he started. "What's neat is to see the smile on little kids faces. Thanksgiving is giving back to the community and the lord. Christmas is his birthday and it has nothing to do with us. If you want to give a gift, give it to him. That's pretty much our view."
Judy agreed with Peter's sentiment, adding it seems there is always a heart-warming story to be told every year.
"It's almost as if each time we do this, there's one family, one group, one person that you know it was all about," she said. "There's always something that stands out each year whenever we do Thanksgiving or Christmas that you just know in your gut that you did it for them."