“It’s the electricity in the building, seeing the youngsters enjoy themselves, it’s uplifting,” said The Gathering Place Executive Director Dave Fisher about “Hot Dogs with Santa,” a Christmas event hosted by the Milton-based activity center annually since 2003.
This year, the event will be held Sunday, Dec. 8, 4-7 p.m.
The Gathering Place, 715 Campus St., is a members-driven activity center that rents event space and holds activities that are open to its membership and the public, Fisher said.
The Hot Dogs with Santa program is very popular, he said, typically attended by about 300 families. The center has about 500 members, he said.
“You cannot believe the faces of these little kids when they sit down, eat a hot dog, and see Santa. They are just abuzz,” Fisher said.
“He’s very nonthreatening, very calm, and he reads the kids very well. Before long, the kids are giving him their lists or reading their lists to him so Mom and Dad can hear what’s on the list,” said Program Coordinator Sue Eckert as she described Santa.
In past years, Fisher said, once the doors open, the line to Santa forms and remains in place for the full three hours.
“From the building’s front door to Santa’s chair by the fireplace is about 100 feet, and that’s how long the line is,” he said.
“The line with Santa sometimes requires patience, because Santa takes his time with each child. He does not hurry them through,” Eckert said.
Arriving families often go first to the kitchen and order hot dog meals, which cost $2 each. Tables are available in the dining room. Next, family members can line up to see Santa or opt to play games in the basement, Fisher said.
Games are chosen with children ages 1-8 in mind, and players can win prizes, Eckert said. The game list includes ball toss, fishing games, and “Plinko,” a game of chance made famous on a popular TV game show in the 1980s.
Gathering Place members volunteer their time each year to collect donations used to supply prizes, Eckert said.
Game prizes might include: pencils, beads, board games, stuffed animals, dolls, toy cars, books, and crayon kits. As kids play the games, they earn tickets, which can later be traded for prizes, she said.
On the day of the event, the building is in full swing. Kids that play games usually leave with two or three bags of prizes, Eckert said.
The event has become so popular over the years that kids who might have originally come to see Santa as babies, continue to come back until they are between the ages of 8 and 10. Santa and the games are an equal draw, she said.
Volunteers are the driving force that make the program a success, said Fisher. Right around Thanksgiving, decorating begins, Eckert said. It’s a three-day event, she said.
Over the years, The Gathering Place members have donated artificial Christmas trees. Six are used to decorate the outside of the building and six are used inside, Eckert said.
Among the trees is one that is particularly special: it is a white and gold 8-foot tree that originally belonged to the center’s founder Marian Allen, Eckert said.
“Each year, we place that tree in the foyer, and we decorate it with her original ornaments. There is even a list telling us where each piece goes,” Eckert said.
It takes about 30 volunteers to run the games, make and serve the food, and operate cameras for pictures with Santa. Pictures with Santa cost $1 and are ready at the event, Eckert said.
Proceeds made at the event are used to support the event, she said.
“I love it when everybody is here playing games, eating and seeing Santa,” she said.