A Christmas gift for Santa

A wife tries to fulfill her husband's holiday wish by replacing pictures from his days spreading joy at Santa House

December 23, 2005|By JOHN FRITZE | JOHN FRITZE,SUN REPORTER

Santa draws all of the attention this time of year, but along the Inner Harbor a thoughtful Mrs. Claus is proving that she also knows something about Christmas spirit.

As her husband coaxes wish lists out of wide-eyed children, Mrs. Claus has been pulling parents aside to quietly reveal what Santa wants for Christmas this year - a gift only they can give.

"How long have you been coming here?" she asks as families enter the Santa House off Pratt Street. "Do you have any old pictures with Santa?"

Mrs. Claus, also known as Sherry Bastress of Rosedale, is replacing a small archive of pictures her husband gathered during his 19 years as Santa - a collection that was destroyed, along with everything else the couple owned, in a February fire.

Some photos were of adorable newborns, dwarfed by his red suit. Others were of repeat customers who returned year after year to tug at his beard (it's real). Sometimes he'd save pictures of sick children who interrupted their treatment to spend time with Santa.

All of it - hundreds of pictures, drawings and letters to Santa - went up in flames.

"It was just so heartbreaking, such a tragedy," said Bastress, 55, who manages the business, a garage-sized building covered in white lights. "We had pictures all over the home of him with the children. We had tons and tons of photos."

Santa saved pictures that turned out well or that meant something to him. He bundled them by year and stored them in a cardboard box in the attic. Now and then, he pulled them out to remember the children whose lives he had touched.

"I would see them and remember stories," said Santa, who also goes by Ed Bastress, from his new home. "It brought back sparks and touching times."

Like the girl who asked Santa to bring back her grandmother. "Santa Ed," 67, told her to close her eyes and think of her grandmother and that she would "always be in your heart."

This year, Sherry Bastress intended to share hundreds of their memories with other families by piecing together collages from the photos. She planned to hang them on the walls of the Santa House.

But one day in February, as the couple was out running errands, a fire started outside their home - the cause is still under investigation, Sherry Bastress said - and by the time they made it back everything was gone.

With help from neighbors and the Red Cross, the family found temporary housing and began putting their life back together. But insurance couldn't bring back the pictures.

So Sherry Bastress began asking customers who looked familiar if she could pay them for a copy of old pictures they might have of their children with Santa Ed. She's still asking. She hopes to have the collages up next year.

"He's very proud of what he's been able to accomplish over these years, and he's worked very hard at it," she said. Santa Ed has become an institution at Harborplace, a location that draws a steady stream of tourists and shoppers with children. And, over nearly two decades, he's seen it all - from marriage proposals to group pictures with the Russian circus.

Usually, though, the house is full of children, nervous and excited, waiting to talk about their hopes for Christmas morning. Lily Goldsmith spoke with Santa last year, so she was prepared when the question came this time.

"A baby," said Lily, 4, as she stared at Santa's bushy face.

"Yes, and what else?" Santa asked.

"A kitchen," she said.

"Yes, and what else?"

"A stroller."

"Okay, I'll see what I can do," Santa said, setting her back on the floor. "Merry Christmas."

This year, Sherry Bastress hopes the holiday spirit her husband has inspired for so long will extend beyond the children to their parents. She hopes that, this year, Santa gets what's on his wish list.

"We know we have to move on," she said. "I don't want people to feel sorry for us. I want people to realize the pictures mean something not only to Santa, but to us."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

To contact Sherry Bastress or provide copies of photos with "Santa Ed," write eabsabtab@hotmail.com.

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