Metro

Kevin Cullen

Christmas in the City shows off the true meaning of the holiday

Anthony Sanchez was all smiles as he left Christmas in the City in 2016.
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File 2016
Anthony Sanchez was all smiles as he left Christmas in the City.

Christmas isn’t a day anymore. It isn’t a week, or even a month. A drug store I go to had some Christmas stuff up in October, and it was far from the first.

Every year, the season not only gets longer but also more complicated. This year, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” a quaint relic of non-computer-generated animation, has been denounced as too cruel, while the seasonal ditty “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” has been censored by some as too rapey.

All the while, we’re subjected to an endless stream of TV commercials that treat it as commonplace that some guy gives his wife a car for Christmas that costs as much as a small house in Wyoming.

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For all the commercialism, for all the cultural skirmishes, there remain other things that summon the true meaning of the season, and one of them is surely Christmas in the City.

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Conceived by the husband-and-wife team of Jake and Sparky Kennedy, it began in 1989 with a simple but profound premise: Every child, even poor children from homeless families, deserves to get the one gift they want for Christmas.

They served 165 homeless kids that first year. Next Sunday, they’re expecting more than 6,000 homeless kids and their families at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center. Every year, the old record is broken by a new record.

The convention hall is converted into a winter wonderland. There are amusement rides and therapy dogs and a bevy of Santas who hand out that special gift, and a few others.

All of this is overseen by an army of volunteers, many of whom return year after year and consider Christmas in the City their most important holiday tradition. One of them is Lanaii Tolentino. Lanaii and her twin sister, Laticia, are the greeters, the first impression for the arriving families. They are the ones who get the kids off the 170 buses that stream in from various locations including no less than 58 homeless shelters in and around Boston.

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Eleven years ago, Lanaii Tolentino spent one of the weeks leading up to Christmas in a medically induced coma after complications from her son’s birth. When she was released from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, a social worker handed her some information with a telephone number.

She called the Kennedy Brothers Physical Therapy clinic on Franklin Street downtown, and Jake Kennedy answered the phone.

“Come down tomorrow,” Kennedy told her. “We’ll take care of you.”

She left the clinic with a bag of gifts for her son, not to mention diapers, a child’s car seat, and warm clothing. As she walked away with that bag, Lanaii Tolentino made a vow, that she would get back on her feet and get back to Christmas in the City so she could give back. And every year since she has done just that.

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” she said.

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But, as is the case every year, the organizers need money and toys. You can go online to christmasinthecity.org, call Kennedy Brothers at 617-542-6611, or stop by the clinic at 45 Franklin St. to contribute a gift or get the name and wish list of a homeless child.

You can do the same at any of the Kennedy Brothers clinics in Cohasset, Braintree, Needham, and Watertown. There are more than 30 dropoff spots listed on their website. If you swing by Lexington Toyota, George Grey will run out of the showroom so you don’t have to get out of your car. The same goes for the Seaport Hotel, where Jim Carmody’s staff will valet your car for free.

Last year, a new tradition began, with about 100 families who have homes and means experiencing the winter wonderland a day early, on Saturday. Jake Kennedy hopes those numbers grow this year.

“It’s a great way to teach kids about how important it is to give back at the holidays,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about.”

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.