Applause, cheers, and high-fives greeted children Sunday morning as they gamboled down a red carpet, through a tunnel of twinkling lights, past a cluster of lighted trees, and into a dining area the size of a football field.
Little jaws dropped and small eyes grew wide with astonishment as they took in the scene: Clowns tooted kazoos and performed magic tricks; a cluster of Jedi bent to child-height to greet the small guests; parents pulled out cellphones to grab snapshots with the Avengers.
Sunday’s 29th annual Christmas in the City celebration was the biggest yet, with more than 1,000 volunteers working to provide a magical experience to about 5,000 children and 1,500 parents who are homeless or in transitional housing, according to organizers’ estimates.
This year’s fete was also the first to feature a performance by the Blue Man Group, which drew families to cluster near the stage and adults to lift children for a better view.
Kymara Lancaster, 5, straddled her mother’s hip and pumped her small fist in the air as the performers splashed paint around the stage while playing music on barrels and pipes.
“I think the show was awesome,” a smiling Kymara said afterward, “because they put paint on the drum and started playing it, and more paint came out of their mouths.”
Her mother, Tamara West, 29, said their family was having a great day.
“I want to be here every year,” she said.
Jake Kennedy, who founded the all-volunteer event with his wife, Sparky, in 1989, said they couldn’t have foreseen that it would become an enduring holiday tradition.
“We weren’t even thinking about the next year,” he said. “But we enjoyed the first one so much, and so many volunteers emerged, we said ‘Let’s go.’ ”
Sparky Kennedy said some of those who participated years ago as children have come to her in adulthood to say, “That was the best Christmas I’ve ever had, because I remember being so down and out, and all of a sudden this event happens, and it was just fantastic.”
Jake Kennedy said their family has been fortunate not to have experienced the deprivation the families they serve have known.
“Everything we took for granted as a kid, they don’t have,” he said. “It’s not just the gifts. It’s the music, the compassion, the dignity, the red carpet, the acts. It’s so special.”
The celebration drew officials including US Senator Elizabeth Warren, Boston Police Commissioner William B. Evans, and Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who told reporters, “It’s a great event . . . another gratifying moment where you realize what you have in life.”
It also included an expanded “Winter Wonderland” — an indoor carnival with a carousel, a child-sized train, a chair swing, a fun house, and a giant inflatable slide shaped like a pouncing saber-toothed tiger, all under the watchful eye of an inflatable Santa Claus that was about 40 feet tall.
Leticia Lara, 25, waited in the queue for the Scrambler ride with her 1-year-old twins, Apollo and Alex Horn, and daughter, Kelis Christian, 6.
Kelis said her favorite part was “bouncing on that kitty house” and pointed to the inflatable tiger.
Her mother said the holidays bring stress as well as joy.
“We don’t have access to a lot of stuff, like gifts for the kids,” she said. “[But we’re] happy because it’s another year about to come.”
Throughout the day, the children devoured chicken nuggets and pizza, cavorted to performances by the Dirty Water Brass Band and the South Central Mass Choir, and grinned as their faces were painted with candy canes, butterflies, or Wonder Woman’s tiara.
But — let’s be honest — for many, the gifts provided the greatest excitement.
“Mommy!” cried 8-year-old Mariah Minot as she opened a pink basket to find miniature porcelain dishes and metal flatware inside. “A tea party set!”
She showed off the array, saying, “I’ve got plates, and I’ve got a bunch of little forks, and I’ve got tiny spoons. . . . My favorite game is tea party.”
Her mother, Marie Minot, 27, said she “had a wonderful, magnificent time.”
“It means a lot that we can share this moment together,” she said.
She said it would be difficult for her to afford more gifts for Mariah and her brother, 1-year-old Jaliyah, who received an animatronic Elmo from “Sesame Street” on Sunday.
“It’s a struggle,” she said, “so this really helps a lot.”
Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.