A one-eyed Bawlmer Santa

December 23, 1993|By Anne Haddad

THE first thing I noticed about Santa was that he had one eye.

Not one second later, I learned a lesson from my 2-year-old daughter, who noticed only that Santa was standing before her. A real Santa, right out of her storybooks and songs.

She accepted his outstretched hand and greeted him like an old friend.

In the narrow Highlandtown storefront, all the decorations were piled at the far end, drawing us past the bare walls to where a felt-covered chair stood on a platform of mismatched reds.

BTC Santa, with his one eye, two molded rubber boots and crushed velvet suit, put my child at ease with his casual manner and speech that betrayed his true home town. A Bawlmer Santa. He was just right.

Even when we're old enough to know better, adults strive for a "perfect" Christmas. A clean house smelling of cinnamon. Portraits taken in time to send with Christmas cards. Wreaths and bows on the doors. Cooking for 20. No colds or ear infections allowed.

Perfection is all in the head.

It's when I notice the small, unexpected miracles, like my daughter sitting on Santa's knee for a full five minutes without asking for a darned thing, just happy to chat with him about her stuffed doggie, Toto.

"Can I hold Tow-doe on my lap?" Santa said when Daisy initially had been reluctant to do so alone. It worked. How did he know it would?

We were the first and only people there shortly after noon Sunday, so Daisy had him all to herself. For once, no line ahead of us or behind us. After a while, Santa had to do a little prompting to bring Daisy's visit to closure. She still hadn't told him what she wanted.

"Would you like a Barbie doll, hon?" he asked.

"Yeah!" she said, a little surprised. It occurred to me that she thought the candy canes he gave her were the present. Then she pointed out her new green shoes.

I hope she's always this easy to please.

This year is the first time we've talked up Santa and taken our daughter to see him. We weren't looking forward to bringing this fantasy to life in a shopping mall.

I wished for the old-fashioned Main-Street Santa house of my own childhood in Michigan City, Ind. One year, I remember Santa handing me two lollipops as our visit came to an end.

"Here's one for you, and one for your Uncle Ted," he said with a wink.

Wow. Santa knows Uncle Ted.

In the early 1970s, our Santa moved from the downtown shopping district to the new mall. Santa was never as mysterious in that brightly lit, over-decorated milieu.

We were glad to hear the Highlandtown Merchants Association still has a red Santa house they provide for the big man every year. This year it's being repaired, but Santa is leasing a vacant storefront across from the Eastern House Restaurant. Inside, a few elves took pictures and helped the Santa who was in no hurry.

A Santa from Bawlmer, with ordinary plastic-framed glasses. Minus the suit and beard, he might have been a guy tending bar at the VFW. And behind those glasses was only one working eye.

The other stayed closed long enough -- the duration of our visit, in fact -- that it was clearly through malady and not lack of enthusiasm. I later learned he was left blind after a mugging on Regester Street.

Still, for Daisy, he was the man she'd been hearing about and seeing in books like "Carl's Christmas." The man we sing about:

"He knows if you've been bad or good. . . ."

The rest of the day was great. She was on her best behavior. Has Santa Claus (Papa Noel, Saint Nicholas) become a tool for keeping children from the same bad behavior their parents exhibit at shopping malls?

Parents try so hard to have a perfect Christmas, we nearly trample over one another. On a recent mall outing, we stopped counting the number of times a young voice wailed, "I want to go home." One of those youngsters was our own.

Imagine a revolution: no gifts allowed except the charitable and spiritual. Instead, give those material gifts the rest of the year, whenever the spirit moves you. What would Christmas be like if we could just peel away the shopping and make it the religious holiday it is meant to be? We're too far gone ever to know.

We saw a woman Saturday at Owings Mills Town Center who needs a Santa. Her son, about 8 years old, was sulking and walking a few feet ahead of her.

"I have never been so disappointed in anyone in all my life, as I am in you right now," she said to her imperfect son.

Dear one-eyed Highlandtown Santa, please pay her a visit.

Anne Haddad is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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