The split-level house is bursting with couples dressed in their Christmas best. They study the wine selection in the kitchen, compliment each other on the appetizers and catch up on a year gone by. It looks like any neighborhood holiday party -- except this one has been around for several decades.

Back in 1981, a group of stay-at-home moms got the idea to prepare a four-course holiday meal at four houses in their Minnetonka neighborhood. They never intended to start a tradition, but the idea stuck.

This year the neighbors celebrated their 30th annual progressive get-together. Recently, in a cul-de-sac off Highland Road, three homes welcomed the neighbors with luminarias lining the walkway. The menu is now three courses, and some of the neighbors have moved away, but beyond that the event has remained remarkably the same.

"The meal hasn't changed at all," said Ann Carlson, wearing a cherry-red jacket and having the distinction of being a co-founder of the progressive dinner. "It's about neighbors and friends coming together, especially in the winter when we don't see each other much."

The camaraderie was evident throughout the 4 1/2-hour event, which began with a round of appetizers that included sausage-stuffed peppers and roasted asparagus wrapped in bacon and phyllo. Partway through the appetizer course, several of the women slipped out to ready the entrée at the next home. Then the phone rang.

"They're ready for us!" someone announced over the chatter.

Neither rain nor snow

As couples ambled across the cul-de-sac, the talk turned to last year's dinner, held on a weekend when 17 inches of snow fell. Since all the invitees lived within walking distance, the event went on as planned, but trudging through the snowdrifts was something they won't forget.

"I was sopping wet by the time I reached the house because I'd had such a workout," said Gail McMillan, who used to run a catering business and provided this year's stuffed peppers.

Nothing stops the dinner from happening. "You come in a stretcher if you have to," she said with a laugh.

Inside the second home, where the entree was to be hosted, all the furniture had been removed to make room for borrowed tables and chairs. (One of the invitees is a principal at a nearby school, which helps in procuring extra seating.) The wine glasses are rented, but the sterling silver and china are culled from the neighbors' collections.

This year the entree was a pasta trio featuring seafood alfredo and golf ball-sized meatballs, along with ricotta-stuffed shells and lasagna. For the first time in the dinner's history, the food was served buffet-style, "to simplify." Despite the stunning array of food, the guests seemed more interested in talking than eating, and ultimately had to be encouraged to dish up before the meal got cold.

Over plates heaped with food, the couples talked of the past, when children filled the neighborhood.

"We all know each other's children," said Petey Ellis, a dinner co-founder and host of this year's dessert. There were stories of car wrecks, snow mishaps and the time one teenager took the Highland Road hill too fast and landed in Wing Lake. Now the kids are grown and gone, starting families of their own.

"But there is a new generation coming into the neighborhood," McMillan said. There are younger couples in the mix, such as Elizabeth and Scott Riley, who have been coming for three years.

"It's fun to be part of something with such a rich tradition," said Elizabeth Riley. "This is a moment, especially during this busy time of year, when you get a chance to slow down."

30 years of memories

Over the years the group has collected a stack of fanciful menus embellished with Christmas trees and stars, courtesy of one of the participating families that runs a wedding invitation business. For the millennial year 2000, they compiled a cookbook of past recipes.

In the dinner's 30-year history, the greatest catastrophe was an appetizer that exploded. And every entree, from prime rib to Cornish game hens, has been a winner. Well, every year but one.

"Except the year we did paella," said Ellis with a laugh. "Everyone thought it looked too much like hot dish. That was the year a lot of our neighbors quit coming."

As dinner wound down, a few teenage girls from the neighborhood trudged in. Per tradition, they had been hired to wash the dishes.

"All our kids got hired at one time or another," said Tom Peterson, who has been attending the event for 29 years. "They love the extra money."

On their way out the door for the final course, the group lingered in the coat room, talking about the party they threw for Steve the mail carrier a few years back. They refer to him like a long-lost friend.

After pulling on their coats and shoes, the diners worked their way slowly to the final house, walking in a cluster under the full moon.

"This dinner is one thing people advertise when selling their house," said Tom Peterson, who has been attending the event for 29 years. "But this is also one thing that keeps people here. I grew up in a small town where everyone knew each other. This creates that same feeling, in a micro-sense."

A great deal of planning

Despite the casual nature of the actual gathering, the dinner's execution has become an art, thanks to Tom's wife, Naomi, who took charge after the first year and has kept it going ever since.

Naomi Peterson gathers the neighbors at her home in the last week of October to coordinate the dinner. They break into three committees, decide who will host, and plan the menu. Once the entree is decided, Tom Peterson sets up the wine list through a friend who is a wine importer.

The dinner is always set for the second Saturday of December. The number of invitees is limited to 50 because that's all they can fit in their mid-size homes. If a neighbor turns down the invitation twice, they don't get invited again.

Cathy Peterson, who hosted appetizers at her home this year, said she and her husband were invited the first year, but couldn't make it.

"It took four more years for us to get invited again," she said. The couple learned their lesson. They haven't missed the gathering in more than 15 years.

The party isn't meant to be exclusive. It's a way for the seasoned members to acquaint themselves with new neighbors. Carlson joked that the invitation "comes with the house." If the previous owners attended the party, then the new owners get invited.

At Ellis' home, the evening wound down with mini éclairs, a four-layer chocolate cake and coffee liqueur. The women chatted about the remodeling that Ellis had done recently, which involved knocking down a wall between the kitchen and dining room.

"This is what neighborhoods are all about," said Naomi Peterson, gesturing to the people around her. The kind of camaraderie that marks this gathering carries over throughout the year, as the neighbors shovel each other's driveways or feed a cat when someone goes out of town.

"It's not just the dinner once a year."

Tiffany Gee Lewis is a St. Paul freelance writer. Reach her at