Yadhira Mendez knelt on the gymnasium floor to tear wrapping paper off the Christmas present she had just been handed during the gift giveaway at St. Peter’s Church in Dorchester on Saturday.
“It’s a generation doll!” the 11-year-old shouted, looking up to grin at her twin brother, Yuri. “It’s like an American Girl doll, but taller,” she explained.
Yuri cradled his own treasures: a yellow car, a Lego set, and a basketball. All around them at the Catholic Charities’ Teen Center, children kicked new soccer balls, skidded skateboards across the floor, and chatted happily about wireless earbuds and Easy-Bake Ovens.
About 400 families -- including around 1,400 to 1,500 children -- were expected to receive Christmas gifts at the 23rd gift giveaway, a tradition started by the late Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino and carried on by his family members, who purchased the gifts this year.
“It’s just an honor to continue the legacy that he built,” said his granddaughter, Olivia Fenton, 17. Olivia’s sister, 18-year-old Giulia, said she remembered waking up on Christmas as a child, excited to go see what Santa brought; it was the best, she said, to give that to other children.
Families who cannot afford Christmas gifts fill out applications to participate in the giveaway, and the children make wish lists. While the children are always thrilled, the Christmas Eve tradition gives struggling parents the gift of providing for their families, said the Rev. Jack Ahern, who helped begin the effort more than two decades ago.
“A lot of tears, especially in mother’s eyes,” said Ahern. After a bruising election season, he said, some families are afraid and some kids are worried their parents will be deported. With such instability, he said, the gift giveaway “provides a sense of community.”
For Jeannie Alicea, who came with her 12-year-old daughter and her 5-year-old son, the gift giveaway meant there would be presents under the tree after a hard year.
“I’ve been having a rough time,” she said. “It helps out a lot with me. I feel bad, especially around the holidays, not being able to give my kids a Christmas I think they deserve. So just coming here means a lot.”
Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley said he was heartened to see so many young people so happy. And the fact that Christmas Eve coincides with the start of Hanukkah, he said, was very special.
“It’s beautiful when these feast days coincide, because that way we’re all celebrating together,” he said.
Boston Police Commissioner William B. Evans and Mayor Martin J. Walsh, both of whom attended the gift giveaway in the morning, stepped out into the rain after about 45 minutes to walk through the Bowdoin-Geneva area with a large group of city officials and police officers, handing out gifts to every child they saw.
Inside a barbershop, Walsh slipped a Star Wars figure under the white smock of a stunned little boy; Evans posed for endless selfies with a woman who wanted to know, “Got two for my grandchildren?”
Evans said he loves the gift giveaway and the walk. He always keeps his fingers crossed for a happy and quiet holiday.
“We pray that everyone has a great Christmas,” he said, “and a safe new year.”Evan Allen can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @evanmallen.