Santa and Mrs. Claus started the countdown.
“Ten, nine, eight . . . ”
Children, some with painted faces and others with mouths still full of chicken nuggets and holiday cookies, sprinted toward a curtain to the right of the stage where Santa stood.
“Seven, six, five . . . ”
Children, their parents, and volunteers all shouted the numbers in unison, anticipation building. “Four, three, two . . . ”
“One!” everyone screamed. The curtain parted and more than 4,000 children from homeless shelters across the city flooded into the 24th annual Christmas in the City “Winter Wonderland,” an area of the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center that had been transformed for the annual event, where children are given a day of holiday recreation, gifts, and food. Fake snow showered them as they skipped, jumped, and ran toward the amusement park rides, bounce houses, and ponies.
One of the founders of Christmas in the City, Jake Kennedy briefly stood between the two snowmaking jets, listening to the cheers and laughs of children. He put his hands in his pockets as his red vest collected the fake, wintry precipitation.
‘We want to make these kids’ dreams come true. At least for one day. For one day, it’s all about them’
Christmas in the City, which is staffed entirely by volunteers, was founded by Kennedy and his wife, Sparky, in 1989, when they threw a party for 165 homeless children in city shelters in City Hall Plaza.
More than 20 years later, it has grown into an event nearly 25 times bigger, helping 4,000 children and 1,800 parents from various homeless shelters, according to a statement from the organization.
“It’s not about giving a present,” said Kennedy. “It’s about giving them the best day.”
“We want to make these kids’ dreams come true,” said Sparky Kennedy. “At least for one day. For one day, it’s all about them.”
It started about 11:30 a.m., when 150 buses brought children and families to the convention center. They were greeted by volunteers, some dressed in holiday costumes, and led to tables, where a constant supply of food was provided. Booths around the room offered dental care, medical aid including flu shots, and service dogs for kids to play with and cuddle.
“This is my first year here,” said Keisha Cole, 37, who sat with her children Caleb, 9, and Kelise, 6. “It’s so great. They really put time and effort in for the kids and families.”
Cole said her children loved the service dogs and were very surprised by the amount of things made available to them.
Kelise said her favorite part had been the face painting and balloons. She was excited to see Santa.
“I just want to go dance,” she said, bobbing up and down in her chair. Music from bands and a choir blared from the main stage.
Inside the Winter Wonderland, bounce houses wobbled full of jumping kids, a duck boat parked on the floor allowed children to explore it, a real fire truck turned on its lights, and volunteers handed out fire hats.
Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren and Governor Deval Patrick visited the event, thanking the Kennedys and volunteers for their time and efforts.
About 3 p.m., children and their families were led back to their tables where personalized presents were given to each child, along with backpacks containing hats, gloves, and scarves.
“Ooooos’’ and “ahhhs,’’ mixed with laughs and shouts of joy, could be heard across the convention center as children opened their gifts.
Michael Rodenmacher, who turned 7 on Saturday, and his mother, Crystal Anderson, 28, sat at a table on the far side of the room. He stood happily next to his new red monster truck.
“I think this is all awesome,” said Anderson, who said it was her first time at the event. Her Rodenmacher said his favorite part was “getting the toys.”
Another 8,000 children are expected to receive gifts Monday, although the festivities will not be as intense.
“It humbles you that so many volunteers will give up their time to make it work,” said Kennedy. “The demand and the need is amazing. And that grows. It’s sad that the need is out there.”
“But we’re not sad today,” he said. “Because we know kids who are 21 years old who came to this when they were 6 and they said it was the greatest day of their life and their mothers said it was the greatest day of their life, so I think the volunteers are doing the right thing.”