Santa Claus made an hours-long stop in Aiken Sunday afternoon as he and the missus begin preparing for the holiday season.

The busy man with the long, white beard and plump belly could be seen at the Aiken Visitors Center and Train Museum, perched joyfully by a Christmas tree, a row of stockings and the fireplace he ostensibly used to get inside and set up.

Santa hugged, high-fived and posed with dozens of kids, offering them candy canes and fielding their wildest of present wishes. Mr. Claus was the integral part of Lunch with Santa, hence the name, an annual event put on by the Aiken Standard.

More than 200 kids (some more comfortable with Santa than others) were registered to attend the lunchtime event, which also featured a straight-to-the-North-Pole mailbox. Plenty of letters were deposited.

"It's a great event, and it's great for the community," said Diane Daniell, the Aiken Standard's sales and special projects manager.

The event gets larger every year. And some families have made attending – and busting out the Christmas sweaters and festive flannels – a new tradition.

Melinda Caldwell, who also does special events for the Aiken Standard, described Lunch with Santa as a grand kickoff to the approaching holidays.

"It's a fun community event," she said, standing next to a sign welcoming families to the North Pole. "The kids are so excited."

Lunch with Santa was sponsored by Tyler's Tire & Auto Center, Chick-fil-A, Aiken Flooring, and Sugar & Spice Children's Spa.

Colin Demarest covers the Savannah River Site, the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Nuclear Security Administration and government in general. Follow him on Twitter: @demarest_colin