Jalynn Cage, 7, walked into Toyland and rubbed her hands together slowly, in delicious anticipation - 1,000 toys to choose from!
In a moment, her arms were full, with a stuffed animal - "the biggest I could find" - a magic kit, and an arts-and-crafts set. The third grader from Edward T. Steel Elementary School in Philadelphia could barely see over her haul as she waited to pose with Santa.
Behind her was Jaden Cooper, 6, a first grader at Girard College school, with a new basketball.
"I had an old one once," he said, "but never a new one. I do now."
About 500 children from Philadelphia shelters and elementary schools went to the Girard College gymnasium Saturday for the 21st rendition of Rubye's Kids Holiday Party, a volunteer-run event for some of the city's neediest children.
And the volunteers might take home even more than the kids do.
Mary Anne Bayne, 60, a pediatric nurse from Wilmington, one of 325 volunteers, worked the exit to Toyland. "One little boy told me: 'Three presents! This is the best Christmas ever.' That made my day. That made my year.
"I think about how many presents I give my one grandson," added Bayne. "This is my first year as a volunteer, but it won't be my last."
Vincent Perkins, 45, a Philadelphia disc jockey, has volunteered as Santa for six years now. He loves it so much that he vowed Saturday, "As long as I have life in my body, I will continue to be Santa Claus."
Last year, one little boy who had just moved into a shelter told him, "Santa, I want a bed for Christmas." Santa knew better than to promise what he couldn't deliver. "I'll do my best," he told the boy.
Barbie Henig, 61, of Ardmore, is nearly as iconic as Santa. She is Cupcake Queen, for her years of running the station where children decorate cupcakes.
"Some of these kids have never iced a cupcake," she said. "We kind of guide them. They don't understand how the jimmies go on."
Lamar Frazier, 9, of the Wright School, for instance, couldn't seem to get the icing on his plastic knife to spread on the cupcake surface.
"It's getting stuck," he said. He kept at it, calmly and deliberately, until his cupcake had a smooth coat of icing. It took three dunks - the first two very tentative - into the bowl of red and green jimmies to finish his holiday masterpiece.
For many years, Rubye Caesar, the inspiration behind Saturday's party, gave hats, mittens, and books at Christmas to children in her North Philadelphia neighborhood.
In 1994, she teamed with her chiropractor, Don Weiss, and his wife, Roz, who were looking to host a party for needy children during the holidays. Their first party was a modest affair, with hot dogs served from a pot.
Caesar died suddenly in 1995, and the Weisses, who live in Elkins Park, have carried on in her name and spirit, with the party's growing beyond anyone's imagination.
The children now walk in on a red carpet, cheered by hundreds of volunteers. They eat pizza, dance, go to face-painting, make Christmas cards. Every child still gets books, mittens, and a hat - and much more. Twelve lucky children win new bikes.
Nathanael Bagby, 15, came when he was 6, and he loved it so much, he comes back now as a volunteer. He was blowing up balloons Saturday.
"I want the kids to have the feeling that I had when I came here," he said.
"It's really just a day of joy, a day of love," said Roz Weiss, 67.
It was also a day of sorrow this year for Weiss. Her mother, 94, a big supporter of Rubye's Kids, died Thursday.
"She'd want me to be here," said Roz Weiss, who will sit shivah Sunday.
The party started at 10 a.m. Saturday, and by 2 p.m., the children were ready to get back on their buses, hearts, stomachs, and gift bags all full.
Lewis King, 8, of the Mifflin School, was reading a new book as he waited to leave.
What was the best thing about today? he was asked.
"Everything," he said.