One of the more touching moments to open the Christmas season takes place Monday, when gift cards for food are given out to hundreds.

The Star Gospel Mission service draws hundreds of people who begin waiting in line as early as the previous afternoon for a chance to receive one of the $50 gift cards. By the time the doors open at 7:30 a.m., the line usually stretches for blocks from the mission's entrance at 474 Meeting St. Another 400 cards will be distributed by pastors of churches serving communities with needs.

The mission's food card distribution has taken place for more than a decade, "providing for the needs of the some of the neediest families and individuals in the community," said the Rev. William Christian, executive director. "I think everybody who comes into that line has a need for additional food in their households."

The cards are particularly valuable during the holiday season, when a lot of lower-income residents struggle with paying for food, finding some money for gifts and having people over, said Clayton Heineman, who works with Without Walls Ministry, a charity agency that runs its own food programs.

"The times are getting tougher and tougher. A lot of people have enough money at the beginning of the month, but by the end of the month, they're just barely making it," Heineman said. "If they have a guest, they're cutting into necessary supplies. (The food cards) are just a little extra help."

The cards buy food supplies at participating Piggly Wiggly stores and aren't accepted for purchases of tobacco, alcohol or lottery tickets, Christian said. The distribution is one of the holiday services provided by the mission, which is the oldest operating Christian welfare organization in South Carolina, founded in 1904.

The gift card program is paid for by donations to The Post and Courier's Good Cheer Fund, which provides funding for local charity agencies. The fund opens Sunday for contributions. The cards are purchased "in anticipation that we will have ample resources," Christian said. Any additional funds would be used to help pay emergency needs for rent, utilities or medical needs like eyeglasses, dentures, medicines and emergency transport, he said.

The mission was founded in 1904 by Obadiah Dugan, the owner of a small furniture store on upper King Street, who took note of the homeless men sleeping on the streets and in doorways of downtown Charleston, and decided to take action. He was not a religious person but attended a revival at the invitation of a Catholic friend. He left the service a changed man and promptly set out to make a difference in this world.

Dugan converted to Christianity at the turn of the century.

The gift card distribution was started more than a decade ago by J. Douglas Donehue, who became executive director of the mission and administrator of The Post and Courier Foundation, the company's charitable arm.

He spent 40 years with The Post and Courier as sports editor, state editor, city editor and managing editor.

The fund was started in 1927 by former News and Courier managing editor Thomas P. Lesesne.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744 or follow him on Twitter at @bopete.