For a few hours yesterday evening, about 1,200 homeless children were given the chance to forget about lives spent in shelters and hotels with an early Christmas treat of entertainment, presents and food, food, food.

The occasion was the fifth annual Christmas for the Homeless, which drew 50 busloads of children and their parents to the National Building Museum in Northwest Washington from 18 shelters.

The huge room with massive marble columns echoed with the gab and laughter of children, ranging from infants to teenagers. Kids scampered about wearing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle masks. They stood in line to get their pictures taken with Santa Claus in his sleigh, or with Bart Simpson, or with Earnest Byner of the Redskins. Still others lined up to have their faces painted with watercolors.

There also were visits from Mayor-Elect Sharon Pratt Dixon and two other celebrities: Raphael and Michaelangelo, two of the Ninja Turtles.

"This is wonderful for people like us," said Sherry White, who said she lives at a hotel in Northwest with her 7-month-old son because the city had no room for her at a shelter.

And then there was the food: tables and tables of it, set up buffet style. Six-hundred pounds of turkey and ham, 3,000 pieces of fried chicken, fresh fruit, pizza, hot dogs, rolls, soda and pastries.

All of which impressed White. "When they said we were going to have dinner, I thought we were going to sit down and have a plate," she said. "We have more than enough."

Serving the food and helping with baby-sitting were about 170 volunteers from high schools and businesses.

"We've had volunteers as far away as Baltimore," said the Rev. John Myslinski, associate pastor at the Annunciation Catholic Church in Washington and a Christmas for the Homeless board member. "I just wish the spirit of tonight could continue all year round."

Dixon arrived about an hour into the event, and climbed into Santa's sleigh to have her picture taken with St. Nick and a sleeping baby.

"I voted for you, Ms. Dixon," shouted Bryant Brooks, 27, who said he lives with his 5-year-old son at the Braxton Shelter in Northwest. "I hope you help out the homeless."

Dixon later got on stage and promised to do just that with recreational and educational programs. She then introduced the Ninja Turtles, who danced in from the wings and led the children in shouts of "Cowabunga!"

A 4-year-old girl stood on a chair and watched it all with wonder. Her mother, who said they live in a shelter for battered women and asked that their names not be used, pronounced the evening a very good thing -- "just to let the kids forget where they're at -- temporarily."