Of cookies and carols at the Union Hotel
By ANDREA GRANAHAN / West County Correspondent
On a cold night in Occidental during the holidays 36 years ago, someone built a bonfire next to the town Christmas tree, outside the Union Hotel.
A group of people gathered around and began singing carols. The late Mark Gonnella, who then managed the saloon, came out of the hotel with hot apple cider for everyone.
Two things were born during that caroling session: Diane Masura started the Occidental Community Choir, which is celebrating its 35th anniversary this season, and the Gonnellas began an annual caroling evening, complete with a spectacular array of cookies that thrill hundreds of children.
Gingerbread men, Christmas trees decorated with frosting, glittering stars, angels — cookies of every shape and color fill table after table in the Union Hotel’s Bocce Ball Room.
It’s all a Christmas present from the Gonnella family, who has owned the iconic restaurant and saloon for three generations. Barbara Gonnella is the current manager and oversees the cookies and caroling.
This year the caroling night is Dec. 17 at 7 p.m. We managed to catch a very busy Barbara Gonnella to ask her about the free annual community event.
Can you remember when the caroling began?
We started singing around the piano in the bar 35 years ago. Then I decided to move us into the ballroom. Doug and Sylvia Grissom used to play and lead the singing. Now my daughter Gienna Michel and her teacher Zan Spencer play, and Paublo Rodriguez leads the singing.
How many cookies do you make?
This year I am making 3,000.
You bake them yourself?
I begin by sifting the dry ingredients on Thursday, and bake all day Saturday. I also mix the colors for the decorations that day. On Sunday, I decorate the cookies with the help of friends and whatever employees aren’t taking care of customers and who want to take part. The week before, we print the caroling books. It’s an important event for me.
So many people have supported the Union Hotel through the years. This is our chance to thank them and do something for the community.
How many people show up?
Lots, maybe a couple thousand. Father Christmas and Mrs. Santa show up. It’s nice to have an event that brings the community together.
I always have college kids who used to work here call up. They beg us to wait until their finals are over. A lot of kids have worked here at one time or another, and it’s special for them.
You do other events, too, don’t you?
We donate the food for the Bob Burke’s kids fundraiser. We feed about a thousand people for that. We also donated food for a thousand for a walk-a-thon for the kids. We’ll be donating the food for the fundraiser for St. Philip’s church.
The volunteers over there need to raise funds for maintenance on the historic building, so we can do our part. The Asante kids from Africa were here, and they sang for us. It speaks to what the Union Hotel is all about.
Other family members pitch in?
Oh, yes. Lucille, my mother-in-law, now retired, comes down for it and the decorating. I miss Mark on that night. He passed away six years ago. I am happy to see my daughter taking part. She’s the fourth generation getting involved in the Union Hotel, keeping the tradition going.