Alivia Nixon, wearing a dollop of red face paint on her nose and reindeer antlers sprouting from a headband, screamed with joy as she opened one of her presents: a set of seven different “My Little Pony” dolls. The 6-year-old couldn’t pick a favorite.
Her mother, Margaret Nixon, was every bit as thrilled as her daughter.
“I’m just like a little kid!” she exclaimed.
Nixon and her husband, who are homeless, have been staying with their two children at the Town Line Inn in Malden for three years, she said.
Though such scenes are typical during the annual Christmas in the City event, volunteers who participate year after year in the extravaganza for thousands of homeless children say it never gets old.
“My favorite part is definitely the reaction of people when they’re treated with this kind of compassion, which they don’t see in their normal lives,” said Jake Kennedy, who organizes Christmas in the City every year with his wife, Sparky. The event has exploded from its small beginnings in the late 1980s, when the couple raised $400 to provide dinner and gifts to 165 children, according to Globe reports. This year, about 4,000 children attended, the couple said.
The holiday spectacle began Sunday morning with about 150 buses traveling through Greater Boston to pick up homeless families. Upon arrival at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, children and parents entered the main hall through a tunnel covered in twinkling Christmas lights. On a red carpet under falling snow from cannons, they were greeted by costumed characters: fairies, princesses, superheroes.
Children could visit museum displays, play with therapy animals, and receive dental and optometry services along the edges of the enormous hall. The world’s happiest golden retriever lay on the red carpet, receiving a belly rub from 10 small and equally happy children.
Senator Elizabeth Warren, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, and Somerville Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone accepted the organization’s first “Community Courage” award. They were given not trophies or plaques, but gray Christmas in the City sweatshirts.
And after families ate pizza and chicken fingers, Santa led a parade winding among the hundreds of tables.
Then the parade stopped, and Santa counted down from 10. A red curtain lifted. Little eyes got very big. And then thousands of children rushed forward into the Winter Wonderland amusement park, hands outstretched to catch the faux falling snow.
“I wasn’t expecting a whole theme park!” Deanna King said after her 5-year-old son, Ryneem Hobson, took his first ride on a carousel, sitting atop a white horse with a royal blue mane. They are staying at Brookview House in Dorchester, she said, with her 2-month-old son, Emeir Carr.
Children rode on roller coasters, played minigolf, scaled a rock-climbing wall, visited a petting zoo with llamas and goats, explored a fire engine, and had their photos taken in a buggy with a horse.
Peg Lee, who was volunteering with her husband and 18-year-old son, said she enjoys participating every year because it “gets you in touch with Christmas, rather than shopping and wrapping.”
Kennedy said that when he posted online about needing 2,300 volunteers — a tally that includes continued gift-giving in the remaining days before Christmas — the spots were filled in about three hours.
“There isn’t a year that goes by where I don’t cry because I see the interactions between the families and the volunteers,” he said.
“The way they’re saying hi, the Christmas spirit — it makes you forget why you’re here,” said Ana White, holding her 7-month-old son, Aiden, as she stood in line to get his photo taken with Santa. She has been living at a Heading Home shelter, she said, and had worried that she wouldn’t be able to provide any Christmas presents after her hours at work were cut back.
In order to accommodate the thousands of children, there were more than a dozen Santas in the Winter Wonderland — each hidden in separate booths behind curtains, so as not to spoil the magic.
Colin Mason played the “main” Santa who led the parade, like his father had done before him for more than two decades. He took over the role after his father died in 2010, and he was joined Saturday by his fiancée, Michelle Pafundi, as Mrs. Claus.
“The most heart-wrenching things that they say that they want are like, ‘a home for my family,’ or just ‘a warm place to be,’ ” he said. “Things like that — it’s so sad and touching to realize how many people need [what] most of us already have.”