Angel Saldana sat in front of a steaming Christmas dinner, feasting on roast beef, candied yams, and green beans. Behind him, a tall Christmas tree sparkled with colored lights and silver tinsel. A duo harmonized on carols.
All around, many dug in to hot meals as volunteers bustled through the room, serving food to regulars and new faces, all of whom came for the holiday meal at St. Francis Inn in Kensington.
Christmas drew more than 330 people to the Franciscan ministry, which has served a free meal daily since Dec. 16, 1979. Thursday's turnout was "midsize," said Karen Pushaw, one of the ministry's team members. Memorial Day is typically the biggest draw, with more than 400 fed.
But Christmas, with stockings hung on the walls and holiday cards at each place setting, is especially festive.
"We consider ourselves a second home for people who have none, especially during the holidays, when everything revolves around friendship and family and home," said the Rev. Michael Duffy. "Those three things are lacking in a lot of people's lives. When they come here, at least for this time, they can forget that and be surrounded by warmth."
A Christmas lunch at St. Francis has been Saldana's tradition for the last 20 years. He rents a room seven blocks away and first came to the ministry because he was hungry, he said. He eats there every day.
"This is the only place we come. The best place in the world," said Saldana, 64. "A lot of respect, a lot of love - and the food is good."
On Thursday morning, a line stretched from East Hagert Street down Kensington Avenue as people waited for their holiday meal. Sitting under the shadow of the El, the neighborhood is home to many living in poverty, struggling with employment, or dealing with mental illness or addiction.
The mission, as locals call St. Francis Inn, hands out 10 meals a week to people in need, many of them seniors and families. It provides various services and general assistance - and forges bonds with the people who return again and again.
Elsie and Miguel A. Rodriguez used to volunteer at St. Francis, they said. Now, they eat there every day with their daughter and grandson, both in elementary school.
"They provide you with anything that you need," Miguel Rodriguez said.
The ministry team, made up of sisters, friars, and lay people, lives next to the inn in order to be part of the community.
"We go through what they go through. The elevated train, the drug deals on the corners, the noise, all of that," said Duffy, who has been at St. Francis for 27 years.
The ministry survives on donations. Most everything for the Christmas meal, from the food to the decorations, came from local contributors. Philadelphia vocalists Keli Vale and Alisa B., who together make up the duo Helen Told Hazel, have been coming to serenade the diners for the last five years.
"This is my Christmas gift to me. This is the best thing I can do," said Vale, who first came with a different accompanist in 1999. "It's the real reason for Christmas. It's giving back."
And, she added, Father Duffy's rendition of "White Christmas" is the highlight of her year.
"It's definitely the way to spend Christmas," said first-time volunteer Will Stokes, 25, who was busing tables. His girlfriend and her family brought him along Thursday.
The inn is home to good people, Saldana said.
"They are my family. Everybody's my family," he said, gesturing to the full room. "Even the people I don't know, they [are] my family."