Christmas Eve, the day Ramon Gonzales had waited for all year, dawned clear as a bell in Marana after a week of dreary rain and icy cold.
"Not as many kids as I hoped for," Gonzales said, as he eyed the hundreds of boisterous children darting in and out of the line that snaked beside Marana High School. "Still, that's a lot of kids, a lot of kids."
There could never be too many kids for Gonzales at Christmastime. For 32 years, he has been the driving force behind the annual Miracle on 31st Street, a freewheeling toy giveaway and celebration for children that he refers to simply as "The Party."
The Party drew about 3,000 people this year, a successful turnout in anyone's eyes, but a bit of a disappointment for Gonzales.
"I was hoping for like 5,000, maybe even 7,000 kids. It must have been the weather. People thought it was going to be horrible. But just look at it. It's a beautiful day," he said.
And indeed it was a beautiful day, as Gonzales and an army of volunteers, some of whom had been planning and working since July, came together for no other reason than to make children smile.
Well into its third decade, The Miracle on 31st Street remains distinct from the other holiday celebrations that abound in the Tucson area.
Although it's geared toward underprivileged children, the party is open to all kids, regardless of financial need.
"All kids deserve a toy at Christmas," Gonzales said firmly. "You show up, I don't care where you're from or how much money your parents have, you get a present. That's it."
Also setting the Miracle apart is the quirky informality of the whole affair.
The event, having relocated with Gonzales from 31st Street in South Tucson to Marana when he moved his family to the town last year, now takes place on West Emigh Road in what is essentially the middle of the boondocks.
The Party this year featured parachutists from Marana Skydive Center dressed as Spiderman and Superman zooming over the crowd, a Mariachi band cranking out "Feliz Navidad," an attack dog demonstration that had distinctly un-Christmas-like German shepherds mauling a man in a padded suit, and Santa Claus arriving on a Tucson Police Department helicopter.
Most startling of all, Mrs. Claus bore an amazing resemblance to Marana's matriarch, former Mayor Ora Mae Harn.
But its just that type of strange and spirited atmosphere that adds to the charm of The Party, and more importantly to Gonzales, adds to the joy of the children.
As the TPD helicopter buzzed over the crowd, children - and parents - cheered with delight and waved to the sky.
"Is that him? Santa Claus is here! Santa Claus is here!" screamed six-year-old Brianna Varella, who tugged so hard at her mother's arm that Mom's soda fell to the ground. "It's him!"
When Santa stepped off the chopper - looking a tad woozy from the reindeer-less flight - there were none of the velvet ropes or rules that St. Nick is accustomed to when he tours shopping malls and more staid venues.
Instead, Santa was immediately mobbed and nearly tackled by a stampede of squealing, beaming children. Gonzales, watching the chaos with a cup of coffee in his hand, sported a huge grin and a twinkle in his eye that rivaled Santa's.
The informality is homegrown. In 1970, Gonzales was simply the nice man living on 31st Street who invited a few neighborhood children to his home for Christmas and gave them hot dogs and inexpensive gifts bought from Pic-and Save. The whole shebang cost him about $125.
Living on disability checks after an injury put an end to his career as a sheet metal worker, Gonzales enlisted his friends from his union and neighborhood to help continue the event.
Over the years, the impromptu block party took on a life of its own. By 1995, 6,000 people were coming to the event, police were barricading 31st Street and the event had become a South Tucson institution.
When Gonzales relocated to Marana, The Party and a platoon of volunteers who had worked on the Miracle in South Tucson came with him. Marana opened its arms to the event and the cadre of supporters grew even larger.
The volunteers came out in force this year, setting up stages at 1:30 a.m. in the cold and rain to prepare for the 9 a.m. event; stacking presents and bags of nuts and candy on the stage as the children waited impatiently for Santa to begin the distribution; and cooking a ton of food throughout the day.
"We started working the day before, there's about 30 people involved, and I figure we'll serve about 4,300 hot dogs," said Ruben Alva, owner of Silver Saddle and Silverado steak houses. "We've been with Ramon since the beginning and we wouldn't miss this for the world."
And that may be the real miracle of The Party. That one man could bring together so many people to give selflessly of their time and money for the sole purpose of making children happy at Christmas.
Asked when he and his band of volunteer Miracle workers would begin planning next year's event, Gonzales chuckled. "We started about five minutes after Santa landed."
Besides the hundreds of people who donated toys, money and effort to make sure each child would have a gift, the organizations that helped make the Miracle possible included the Town of Marana; Marana Unified School District; the Marana and Tucson Food Banks; City of Tucson; Comcast Cable; KEVT; Thoroughbred Nissan; Wal-Mart; Northwest Fire and Rescue District; Arizona Department of Public Safety; Grabb and Durando; Desert Rose Doves; Marana Skydiving; KHRR; U.S. Marine Corps Reserves; KHRR; Arizona Rangers; Charter Funding; D.L. Withers and Coca Cola.