More than 250 people gathered Sunday at St. James Church in Setauket for an annual holiday celebration featuring Christmas carols, a hot meal and mountains of presents.
The community event, which organizers said has been going on more than 30 years, draws families in need from across Long Island, many of whom wanted to give their children a chance to experience an afternoon of holiday joy.
“It means everything to us, just coming here, being together,” said Alexis Gomez, 13, of Selden, adding that it was his family’s second year attending the holiday meal.
He said he was still excited after unwrapping a new toy bow and arrow before sitting down to a roast beef dinner with his family.
His mother, Maya Gomez, said she felt connected to the volunteers and fellow diners.
“It’s like we’re all in the same family here,” she said.
Santa was in attendance, and children had a chance to take turns getting photographs taken with him.
Shortly before it was time to eat, organizers dimmed the lights, lit candles and volunteers sang “Silent Night” in Spanish and then English.
Many of the families in attendance were part of a year-round program at the church that distributes food to those in need.
The holiday event is held at the church, but organized informally by members of the community from all faiths, coordinator Jim Miccio, of Setauket said.
“Everybody who does this gets more back than they put in,” he said of the volunteer effort. “It’s a feeling. A lot of these people come here not only for the food. It’s the friendships — it’s the bonds formed between them and with us.”
Zehava Vitberg, a volunteer from Great Neck who was helping with distribution of gifts, said she gets “a lot of hugs” each year.
“It’s just a really rewarding experience to see how excited they get, it makes my holiday better,” she said. “I enjoy seeing their faces. . . . They’re truly thankful for what they are receiving, even if it’s a new pair of socks.”