NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — Christmas came early for thousands of children with special needs from the New York City area who waited in an airport hangar to see the man in the big red suit.

More than 4,000 children and 1,000 volunteers, mostly from law enforcement, gathered at John F. Kennedy International Airport to meet the one and only Santa Claus.

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“I am like exploding to see him,” one boy said before the hangar doors finally opened to reveal Santa waving to the crowd out of the pilot’s window of a Delta plane.

The holiday tradition is 40 years old.

It was started by a group called the Community Mayors.

“It’s just an amazing, amazing event. It nourishes your soul,” said Shelley Della Rocca, president and chief executive officer of Community Mayors.

General Manager Mike Moran said the reaction of the kids can be summed up in two words, “Pure joy.”

“It’s really something special to see,” he added.

“It’s amazing to watch how much everybody gets out of it especially the folks in law enforcement who get to give back something that most of the community never see. It’s a phenomenal idea,” said William Sweeney, who heads the FBI’s New York office.

The Port Authority provided the hangar where the children got to see the real Macy’s parade Santa and take home a toy.

Santa even had proper escorts, including Tanya Sears with the State Department Office of Diplomatic Security.

“We’re just taking over from the elf patrol, and then we’ll make certain that Santa makes it back in time for Rudolph to take him home,” she said.

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The event also featured Macy’s balloons, clowns and high school marching bands.