Think of Christmas in the City this year as an updated version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
According to the song, which by some accounts is apocryphal, Santa Claus seriously considered canceling Christmas one year because he couldn’t steer his sleigh through a blinding storm. Rudolph, whose bulbous shiny red nose had made him the butt of snarky derision from other reindeer, stepped up to save the day, his incandescent schnozz lighting the way.
This year, still reeling from the loss of its founder, Jake Kennedy, to ALS, Christmas in the City ran straight into the buzz saw that is COVID-19. It looked as imposing as that forbidding storm Santa confronted all those years ago. No one would have begrudged them having to skip a year.
But Jake left behind an army of volunteers, and a field general in his wife, Sparky, all of them determined to honor Jake the best way they knew how, by continuing the tradition of providing homeless children with the one special gift they truly want.
Christmas in the City, which hosted 165 kids when it debuted in 1989, grew from that simple but profound idea into the biggest Christmas party Boston has ever seen, with up to 6,000 homeless children and their parents attending a blow-out at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. Every year, that cavernous convention center was converted into a winter wonderland of amusement rides, artificial snowfall, and genuine merriment.
This year, the event is returning to its more humble roots. Sparky Kennedy says COVID-19 restrictions made it unsafe to hold the traditional, sprawling party. Instead, Sparky and her troops will deliver gifts to about 650 kids at shelters in the metropolitan area.
“There’s no winter wonderland,” Sparky Kennedy said. “The kids don’t get the experience of what we’ve come to expect as Christmas in the City. But we are going to carry the spirit to as many kids as logistically possible.”
The logistics have made everything about the event difficult if not impossible. For years, a fleet of dozens of school buses delivered kids to the convention center. This year, everything has to be kept in a bubble, at the various shelters.
Cal Brokamp, who manages vendors at Boston College during her day job, is in charge of the volunteer food effort. Her mother Nancy, a longtime volunteer, began bringing Cal to Christmas in the City when she was a child.
“Cal’s unbelievable,” Sparky Kennedy said. “She’s arranged for different restaurants to deliver dinners to the shelters, so the kids will have a Christmas meal with their presents.”
On Sunday, Sparky and her pal, Deahn Leblang, spent 12 hours shopping, looking for motorized cars and LOL dolls, the hot toy requests from kids this year. They bought kids clothes at the Target in Salem, N.H. Along with other volunteers, they stuffed backpacks with diapers, wipes, hats and mittens, toys.
“The sad part is the need is no different and the kids are no different, and they need some magic in their life, especially now,” Sparky Kennedy said.
That’s where you come in. Even as COVID has limited the numbers served, there are still hundreds of homeless kids who are looking for that one gift they really want. The toy drop-offs traditionally employed have been shelved by the pandemic. But you can still go online at christmasinthecity.org and help.
Sparky Kennedy said this year is a bridge to the next.
“We will come back next year,” she vowed, “as big as and better than before.”
She has approached the holidays with some trepidation, still mourning her husband. But doing the work that meant so much to him, and to them as a couple, has been a balm.
“It keeps me going,” she said. “I keep thinking, this is what Jake would have wanted, not just of me, but of all our volunteers, all our donors, everybody who still believes in the spirit of making Christmas special for a homeless child. It’s the greatest way to honor and remember him.”