This article was published in the Lenoir News-Topic.

At one Christmas party in Lenoir on Thursday, there was food and bowling and mingling, but the closest thing to Christmas, by far, was a small room in the corner, where Santa held court and stacks of presents weighed down the tables.

Each year, the Kiwanis Club of Lenoir holds a Christmas party at Bo’s Family Entertainment for 30 kids from the five elementary schools in Lenoir. School counselors at Lower Creek, Whitnel, Valmead, West Lenoir and Davenport A+ each choose three boys and three girls to attend.

Many nominate children because their families are struggling financially, Kiwanis member Charity Patterson said, but the counselors are welcome to choose any child who needs a Christmas.And in that little corner room, Christmas was easy to find. After knocking down bowling pins and tossing back slices of pizza, the kids made their way over to Santa, one by one.

You could see a clear delineation of belief between the youngest and oldest students. Some of the fifth-graders had sly, not-so-sure looks on their faces, but many of the youngest kids climbed onto Santa’s lap and immediately catapulted into a hug, the looks on their faces a mix of reverence and mild shock.

Then came the presents. The first, for each kid, was an outfit in the child’s size, donated by Belk and handed out by members of the Hibriten High Key Club (“gift elves,” as opposed to the “bowling elves” out in the main area).

You’d expect kids to open a package of clothes and toss them aside with a shrug, but not these kids. One girl showed her new pair of bedazzled jeans to anyone who walked by, carefully pointing out the “sparkles” on the pockets.

Then it was time for the second present – all toys, donated by members of the Key Club. There’s nothing like the way kids tear into wrapping paper when they know a new toy is beneath; if anything is better, it’s their expression when they see what they received (“This Christmas is awesome,” one Davenport A+ student cried when she tore into hers).

After Emerald Hollar of Davenport A+ School opened her first present – an electric-blue velour sweat suit – one of the Hibriten volunteers informed her she still had a gift left, and could choose any present from the nearby tables.

She looked at him and asked – carefully, quietly – “You mean it?”

When Emerald realized he was serious, her smile could have lit the room.