BOSTON — To applause and cheers from hundreds of volunteers, Omar Larrama carried his 1-year-old son down a red carpet as they made their grand entrance Sunday at one of this city's more remarkable holiday parties.
Father and son were embraced by costumed cartoon characters, along with clowns and therapy dogs festooned with wreaths and Christmas bandannas. The Larramas looked up to see arches of red and green balloons and hanging holiday murals painted on sheets by area high school students. Tables for 2,800 homeless children and their parents were set up in an exposition hall.
"This is just amazing," said Larrama, 22. "It takes us out of our everyday lives and puts us in the spirit. Just look at Omar Jr., look at how happy he is. I think this is beautiful."
For 17 years, Boston physical therapist Jake Kennedy and his wife, Sparky, have organized this celebration for the city's homeless families. The event, Christmas in the City, started small, Kennedy recalled, when he and his wife decided their Christmas had gotten out of hand. Their children had too much stuff, they realized, yet mounds of presents continued to build under their tree.
"So we tried to show them the other side, that not everyone had as much as they did," said Kennedy, 50. "And to show them that you really could get as much joy from giving as from getting."
Kennedy chose the combination of children and Christmas because his holiday memories were so happy. He grew up with seven brothers and sisters in a "Hallmark Hall of Fame family," he said. Everything about Christmas was always special, he said, and that was what he wanted to re-create, starting with the thunderous welcome when his young guests walk through the door.
The first year, 1989, they entertained 265 children. Rounding up that many youngsters was a challenge, Kennedy recalled, since city agencies were ill-equipped in those days to identify families without homes.
"We called City Hall and they gave us the names of shelters that had gone out of business 20 years before," Kennedy said. Most city shelters catered only to homeless individuals, he said, not families.
But word spread and the party grew. The owners of the Bayside Expo Center donated space used for conventions and computer shows. Grocers and restaurants provided trays of chicken nuggets, hot dogs and other kid-friendly food. A hair salon from trendy Newbury Street set up a station to offer holiday makeovers. Entertainers lined up to appear on a stage.
"We have had homeless families in our congregation too," said the Rev. Darryl Maston, whose Boston Church of Christ gospel choir members wore Santa hats with their black and purple robes. This is the eighth season the choir has performed for the homeless families.
"This is definitely about giving back," said Maston, who holds Sunday morning services in a nightclub south of Boston. "It is a responsibility and a duty."
The gathering's only significant expense is for the school buses that transport children and their parents from more than 40 shelters. The Kennedys cover the cost through donations.
"Since we are all volunteers, we're not afraid to ask for anything," he said. So many high school students signed up to help that this year, the Kennedys had to close the list.
Kennedy, a wiry figure in Bermuda shorts and a lime-green Christmas in the City shirt, smiled and said: "What a great problem to have -- too many volunteers."
For weeks before the party, Kennedy's volunteer corps scours city shelters. Each child is allowed to ask for three gifts and is guaranteed to receive at least one item from his or her list.
Matt Noyes, a Boston television weather reporter, said what stunned him when he began volunteering at the party three years ago was how simple most gift lists were.
"They wanted toothbrushes, hair brushes and books," he said. "It just blows you away. Then you look around, you see how big this thing has become, and you realize how many more people there must be out there who are in need of support."
Noyes' role is to introduce the party's guest of honor. He brings an inflatable globe to help the crowd locate the North Pole. Santa arrives each year aboard an indoor cherry-picker.
His welcome is rivaled only by the happy commotion that ensues when Kennedy unveils the party's winter wonderland -- a carnival area where children are showered with confetti and soap-bubble snowflakes.
"Oh my goodness, every year when I come here, I get so emotional," said Annie Williams, 42. She and her daughter, Klarisha, were homeless when they attended the Kennedys' first party. They befriended the hosts, and when Klarisha had her own daughter five years ago, Jake Kennedy became godfather to Janasia.
In turn, Williams became a party volunteer, helping mothers and children navigate the event.