Sunday was a day 6-year-old Aaliyah Gonzalez-Rowell will probably remember for a long time.
She had her photo taken with Santa Claus. She unwrapped a brand-new Barbie doll. But what she’ll probably remember most are the carols sung by the South Central Mass Choir.
Aaliyah couldn’t sit still at the Christmas in the City celebration for homeless children. During the lunch of pizza and chicken nuggets, she would take a bite, stand up and dance for a minute, then sit down for another quick bite before more dancing.
“She loves to dance,” said Klirisha Rowell, 22, mother to Aaliyah and 7-year-old Jonathan Gonzalez-Rowell. “She’s a performer.”
Aaliyah and Jonathan were among more than 4,000 children who attended the annual event, founded 25 years ago by Jake and Sparky Kennedy, who were honored for their quarter-century of philanthropy by Governor Deval Patrick and Senator Edward J. Markey during the celebration.
‘It’s more than I expected. It’s overwhelming, to be honest.’
Families arrived in school buses, most traveling from homeless shelters to the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, where they were greeted like celebrities. As children and parents made their way down a red carpet, exuberant volunteers waved, cheered, and whooped.
Soap-bubble snow flew through the air as families entered a huge room packed with hundreds of dining tables. Inside, more volunteers, some costumed as Scooby-Doo, the Cat in the Hat, Winnie the Pooh, and other beloved cartoon and children’s book characters hugged and high-fived the children, often bending down to child height.
“The idea is that they’re supposed to get on one knee and welcome them as if it’s their home,” said Jill Montanile, 51, who has helped organize the event for 22 years.
If the celebration was home, it was also clinic and spa. Children lined up for flu shots and dental checkups, haircuts, and manicures, all free of charge. Roving face painters added Christmas trees, cat whiskers, and candy canes to chubby cheeks.
There were therapy dogs to pet, but also a 10-foot snakeskin provided by Zoo New England, and a scaly blue-tongued skink named Benny.
Most families had planned to attend weeks in advance and provided Christmas lists so their children could have a gift that was specifically requested, but even those who arrived unannounced were welcomed and given gifts.
“We’re very used to that,” Jake Kennedy said. “All our volunteers know that even though they’re prepped for certain kids, other kids might show up.”
At about 1:30 p.m., Santa Claus arrived, heralded by the Boston Police Gaelic Column of Pipes and Drums, and red curtains parted dramatically to reveal the Winter Wonderland.
Inside were carnival rides and bouncy houses; a petting zoo packed with sheep, goats, a cow, and a llama; craft tables; real firetrucks to explore; and a miniature basketball court and soccer field.
Tarsha Brown, 40, waited in line for the Super Slide with her 4-year-old son, Jaylen, trying to take it all in.
“It’s more than I expected,” she said. “It’s overwhelming, to be honest.”
Jaylen said his favorite part was meeting the bear from “Bear in the Big Blue House,” but quickly changed his mind.
“Santa’s the coolest thing I’ve seen,” he said.
Hundreds of high school students helped mind the smaller children, taking them by the hand and guiding them to their chosen destinations. After one young man volunteered to lift her 4-year-old son, Aiden, up for a better look at Santa, Sharlene Davis smiled.
“All the volunteers, they take the kids along so you have a breath of fresh air for a minute,” said Davis, 28.
Just before 3:30 p.m., volunteers wheeled in canvas bins packed with thousands of gifts.
Eager children rattled boxes and unwrapped stuffed unicorns and electronic learning systems, Tonka trucks and baby dolls.
Little Aaliyah got the Barbie she asked for, along with a seemingly infinite variety of accessories. “She loves it,” her mother said, as Aaliyah carefully wrestled each little purse, shoe, and hairbrush from the package.