You'll know you have arrived at John Waters' Christmas party when you see the wreath of thorns.
Ricky the doorman — he's worked this party for 25 years — will not let you past the heavy wooden door unless your name is on the list. You might be able to bring a plus-one. But only one. Waters does not like strangers snooping around his home in Tuscany-Canterbury.
Politicians, actors, old neighbors from Reservoir Hill, childhood friends from Lutherville, sexy bartenders and waiters and party kids are on the list. Of course, all the Dreamlanders, the core of friends who made Waters' films, are there. So are some of the parolees Waters taught while they were in prison.
Once a former convict and the judge who sent him to jail stood around the banquet table together.
"I never disinvite people, and every year I invite new people," says Waters. "So for a couple hours, it's a little too crowded."
Waters has been throwing parties on the Saturday before Christmas for about half a century, since the days when his guests brought thrift-store gifts for everyone else in the room and were too hyped up on speed to eat.
These days, there will be a massive spread— ahi tuna with wasabi creme fraiche, teriyaki grilled flank steak, sushi, antipasto — all sorts of delicacies carefully chosen by Waters and caterer Sascha Wolhandler.
First, though, Waters, 67, will snap your photo with his boxy Fuji camera. He is the only one allowed to take photos at the party.
"I take a picture of everyone who has ever been in this house," Waters says. "It's my diary. It's very revealing if you have a picture of everyone who has ever been in your house and don't destroy some of them."
Then you will pass through the hall, past the electric chair that fries Dawn Davenport in "Female Trouble," a film which also has a memorable Christmas scene.
The chair is tricked out with twinkle lights and garlands and plastic bones and a pillow bearing the image of Divine, Waters' late muse and friend who played Davenport. There are the traditional needlepoints crafted by Waters' 89-year-old mother and an ornament featuring a brawny, bare-chested Santa seductively lacing his boots.
This is John Waters' Christmas.
"All I ever wanted for Christmas is sticks and stones. I never got them as a child, and I tried," says Waters. "I want glamorous ones, handmade ones."
The man who brought us "Serial Mom" and "Polyester" and that infamous scene at the end of "Pink Flamingos" can't get enough of the sappiest time of the year.
He starts designing his Christmas card in the summer. He has come out with a Christmas album. He has penned a paean to the holiday that mentions heroin and shoplifting and the eros of Santa. And for more than a dozen years, Waters has cast himself as a sort of Christmas shrink, traveling the country with his one-man show.
The flash and dazzle of the holiday has fascinated Waters since a childhood party when he recognized the man in the Santa suit.
"I could see it was the man next door," he says. "Even as a child, I thought, 'There's Mr. So-and-so.'"
The tension between appearance and reality captivates Waters. Trompe l'oeil objects fill his home: a battered cardboard box that is a cleverly painted porcelain vase, a realistic hamburger by the lamp, a spread of artificial sushi glistening with plastic roe.
The contrasts of Christmas — the lofty ideals and the flaccid lawn ornaments pooled in the slush — intrigue him.
"I liked Christmas" as a child, he says. "And I still like it for real. But I understand how some people hate it. It's an emotional time of year."
This year, Waters is slated to speak to audiences in 10 cities, including Chicago, New York, and, of course, Baltimore, about his crush on Alvin the chipmunk, Divine's purloined presents and how to spend time with your family without losing your mind.
"If you go home and it's abusive, bring a verbal abuse whistle," recommends Waters. "If anyone says anything abusive, everyone blows a whistle."
Waters is sort of Baltimore's gay uncle with the scandalous past, the one everyone wants to sit next to at dinner, except that great-aunt who hasn't spoken to him since 1973.
He relishes pointing out the absurd. Manger scenes with real babies, for example.
"Who would let their child be Baby Jesus when there's straw in there and mules and fire?" says Waters. "I'm always secretly obsessed with living creches and spy on them. If you see someone crouched down, it's moi, because I don't want to be recognized and I don't want to ruin the people's night, but something about it is very scary to me. Very scary."
And, despite his predilection for the tasteless, Waters has strong opinions on what constitutes good taste.
"To me, the worst-taste decorations are the inflatable ones," he says. "Those look really pitiful the next day. A slush-covered lawn with a deflated Christmas thing — that's the perfect Diane Arbus shot."