For Michael Scionti, the Christmas season begins with the annual variety show at Living Water Full Gospel Church in Riverhead, where he grew up.
Scionti, 26, now living in Mastic, has performed in “The Wonder of Christmas” every year for the past decade alongside his father and stepmother, who sing with the church choir.
“Mike is one of our star [soloists],” said pastor Rick Saladon, who was dressed like Buddy the Elf and taking pictures of children with Santa Claus at the church show Sunday.
But this year, Scionti took on a more important role -- passing on the tradition of attending the show to be with his girlfriend, Sandra Sdunzig, who is pregnant, and her daughter Lexi, 5.
“There was just too much going on this year, and we have a baby on the way, so I couldn’t be in it,” Scionti said. “But I had to bring my family so they can be a part of it.”
Linda Saladon, the pastor’s wife and director of the show, said the church has been putting on the show since 1991 and it’s become an important tradition.
“People come year after year,” she said. “Most of these people can’t get to Radio City Music Hall, so this is the substitute.”
The show features more than 21 song and dance acts and skits, including scenes from the nativity. The show's stars -- members of the adult and children’s choirs and local dancers -- range in age from 4 to 80.
They perform the show Thursday through Sunday for one weekend in December each year, and a portion of the proceeds from ticket sales is set aside for the community's less fortunate. Since the show started, Saladon said, the church has donated about $90,000 to organizations like Toys for Tots, the Rotary Club, and for gift cards distributed to families in need through Riverhead High School and Riverhead Middle School.
“This is really about giving back to the community,” she said.
The choirs begin rehearsals in late September, preparing songs like “Silver Bells,” “Silent Night” and “A King is Coming to Town.”
Maureen Gehl, 72, Constance Monroe, 78, and Irene Cidoni, 82, all from the Saddle Lakes retirement community in Riverhead, said they attend the show every year.
“It’s nice to see so much talent in the church,” Gehl said. “Each year is better than the other.”
Monroe said her favorite part of the show is watching the children perform. “The children are excellent,” she said. “It’s amazing what they can remember.”
Saladon said the show awakens the holiday spirit. “For so many people, this is just what they need to sit back, relax and enjoy the show,” she said. “You remember what Christmas is all about.”
Photo: Jayden Binkis, left, and Dreanne Joseph, members of the Living Water Full Gospel Church children's choir, perform in "The Wonder of Christmas." (Dec. 18, 2011)