PLEASANTVILLE - Mayleanne Lugo smiled as she approached Santa Claus inside Pleasantville Middle School's cafeteria on Saturday morning.

The 3-year-old Egg Harbor Township resident's smile grew when Santa gave her a small container of Play-Doh, which she hugged against her chest until she became the first of 72 local children to win a bicycle, her first, at the 34th annual Hiram Abiff Lodge No. 16 Christmas party.

And even though Lugo's tiny feet did not know exactly how to maneuver the pedals on her new bicycle, her now enormous smile showed her excitement.

"I never heard about anything like this until a friend told me about it. But I love it, and she obviously loves it too," Lugo's mother Fabiola Rodriquez, 32, said while looking down at her daughter, who was inspecting her new wheels. "This is a wonderful thing they do."

The large-scale holiday tradition started under the direction of the Masonic lodge's past master Clarence Williams, who was at Saturday's event helping to hand out gifts.

"He told us he wanted to do something positive in the community for the children," said past Grand Master John Bettis, who was the president of that year's membership class. "We had 200 or 300 kids here for the first year, when we only had two bikes - one boy's bike and one girl's bike - to give away. And it just grew from there."

This year, more than 600 children - from infants to 12 year olds - flooded into the cafeteria for a chance to get one of the 72 bicycles or hundreds of other toys that were given away.

"Every child will leave here today with a toy," the lodge's Worshipful Master Mark Alexander said. "That's the way it always is, and that's why people look forward to this every year."

Pleasantville resident Atia Alexander brings her three children - Izaiah, 10, Anaejah, 4, and Atianna, 2 - to the party every year.

"I think it's nice that they do it," said Alexander, 26. "And it definitely seems to get bigger every year."

And her children seemed more than content with the presents they were given.

"It's also exciting because we get to see people we know, people we don't know and get to have fun with our family," Izaiah Alexander said.

This year's crowd was so big, in fact, that the cafeteria exceeded its occupancy before a single gift had been given away.

But instead of simply turning away more than 150 people who were lined up outside, the lodge's members opened up the stage door at the back of the cafeteria and gave them whatever gifts and candy canes were left over.

The state's current Grand Master, Robert Oglesby, Sr., said between $8,000 and $10,000 worth of bicycles, toys, food and candy canes were given away on Saturday.

"It would be very difficult to do this on this scope without the help and donations we get from the community," Oglesby said. "It's just a joy to have the community come together and to be able to assist those less fortunate that we are."

Mayor Jesse Tweedle, Sr. praised the continued generosity of the lodge and the community as a whole.

"This is one of the biggest events in Pleasantville each year. And this is all about the community coming together, letting people know that we care, that we care for the kids and that the kids are our most-precious resource," Tweedle said. "And hopefully when these kids get older and are successful, they'll remember that success doesn't end with them and they remember the importance of giving back."

Moments later, 2-year-old Pleasantville resident Ileanis Frances was carefully trying to figure out how to maneuver her first bicycle.

"This helps us very much," said her mother Elizabeth Bernabe, 28. "She's going to like this bike."

Contact Robert Spahr:

609-272-7147