By Judith Munson  

Christmas Day. Visions of sugarplums danced the night before, and morning finds the living room strewn with crumpled wrapping paper and ribbon. Then it’s time to clean up, as Grandma, Grandpa and all the cousins will arrive soon for “roast beast” served up Grinch-style. 

Or so the story goes. 

But Enrique Valera, owner of Fiesta Mexicana on Mormon Coulee Road in La Crosse, knows this classic scenario is not the case for everyone. Many folks spend the day alone and may have little to no ribbon or paper littering their floor Christmas morning because they couldn’t afford the presents inside them, let alone the pretty wrappings. 

“There’s always a place for people who have nowhere to go on Thanksgiving,” begins Valera. “There’s a meal served by the community for the needy. But what about Christmas Day? Everything is closed. There’s nothing. So, we decided to open our doors for two hours. It’s all free for anyone who wants to come. No questions asked.”

For the 13th consecutive year since Fiesta Mexicana first opened, the restaurant will be open from noon to 2 p.m. on Christmas Day. Along with a south-of-the-border entrée, guests enjoy free beverages and a dessert array of cookies, muffins and pies donated by Perkins. Valera says more than 450 people were served a meal last year. 

“Some people want to pay, but I tell them, ‘No thank you,’ this is our way of saying thank you to the community for another year of supporting our business,” says Valera. “If people insist on donating, we give all that money to the Salvation Army.” 

Nothing magnifies isolation more than a holiday, as Valera has learned from his guests over the years. “One lady in her 80s said to me, ‘I live by myself and it’s so happy to come here and be surrounded by people.’ She started to cry and made me cry, too—that broke my heart.”

Another need he’s seen is in families, some broken by drugs or alcohol, who can’t afford presents for their kids. “We don’t judge,” says Valera. “This is one day the kids in those families come first. Many of these families include single moms who struggle at the holidays.”

So, once the tables are cleared, Santa Claus—another volunteer—enters with a sack full of presents. All the presents are donated by staff and customers. “Our customers make this happen,” he says. “They will leave an extra tip and say, ‘Use this for the kids who come on Christmas Day.’”

Staff, including Valera’s wife, Maria, and their two daughters, also donate their time. Valera says the event is so important to them, he’s never had trouble finding enough help. “People who used to work for me, who have moved on, come back because they want to be a part of this.”

Shortly after 2 p.m. on Christmas Day, people who otherwise would have spent the entire day alone will begin filing out of Fiesta Mexicana plenty full, with bellies full of good Mexican food and hearts full of cheer from a joyful time spent with others. The only thing empty will be the wrapping paper and ribbons littered across the dining room floor.