Some years when he was a boy, Phil Parham had no presents for Christmas, just a big meal with his family and a hopeful promise, "maybe next time."
Now 44, Parham decided some time ago that other children shouldn't have to wait for a next time. For the past four years, the Westminster man has dressed in a full white beard and locks and a red corduroy Santa suit to be for others "the Santa that didn't come to my house."
For the past two weeks, Parham has stood each evening, in full costume, at the foot of his driveway in the 900 block of Old Westminster Pike to wave at passing cars and take Christmas requests from anyone who pulls over for a visit with Santa.
He sits on a folding chair inside a small shack he built of particle board and topped with a star of Bethlehem. Inside are mugs of hot chocolate, a plastic wreath and boughs and a cassette player loaded with a tape of Elvis Presley singing Christmas songs. Next year, he says, the lawn will be filled with lighted displays and, instead of renting his $35-a-week red corduroys, he'll be wearing a specially ordered suit of his own.
"I just want kids to know there is a Santa Claus, that he does exist," Parham said.
Parham started dressing as Santa each December since 1987 when his grandmother, who was seriously ill, told the family: "Before I pass away, I'd like once to sit on Santa Claus' lap."
The next day, when Parham appeared in a Santa suit and drew her to his lap, she "lit up," he remembered, hugged and kissed him and told him, "I knew you'd come to see me sooner or later."
His grandmother recovered and still lives -- in a Mount Airy nursing home.
"Tell you the truth, I don't think she knew it was me, because she never mentioned it to me," Parham said. From that experience, he made an annual Christmas habit of paying surprise visits as Santa to children of family, friends and neighbors. This year, for the first time, he set up a Santa shack at the end of his driveway.
"It's easier," he said, explaining that in previous years bad weather sometimes prevented him from reaching the homes he had promised to visit.
Parham has come to believe in his Christmas persona. "I believe, as old as I am, that there is a Santa Claus," he said, "but he hasn't been found."
He seemed real enough for a carload of high school girls that pulled over to tell him they'd been good and wanted some rather grown-up things for Christmas.
"I just want my boyfriend," said Jen Bailey, 16, who stood before him, somewhat nervous. Specifically, she wanted her boyfriend to call on her during the holiday vacation.
"That's a tall order," Santa said. After thinking about it some more, he said, "I don't get involved in people's personal lives."
Two other girls asked for a Ford Mustang and a truck.
And Jen's 17-year-old sister, Beth, told him, "I want my driver's license," explaining that she had been too busy lately to ask the Motor Vehicles Administration.
Parham said he is supported by disability payments, received because of wounds he suffered in the Vietnam War. He lives with his wife and four daughters, ages 13 to 22.
One of them, Renie, 14, dressed in a red hat and played Santa's helper the other day. "I love being out here," she said, though the air was harsh and cold in the late afternoon.
On some of his visits as Santa Claus, her father has delivered food and toys to families he has heard couldn't afford a Christmas. And he has become a redistributor of goods among members of his large extended family.
Parham has assigned himself to making Christmas available to xTC anyone who wants it.
"I wish I could please everybody, give them what they want," he said. "If I won the lottery, I'd be glad to."