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."
If you are one of the 100 or so people on Waters' Christmas list, expect a present personally selected by Waters. Nothing too lavish.
"It's not about going out and spending a lot of money," he says. "If you do, that's an insult."
Books make the best gift, says Waters, whose North Baltimore home is lined with stacks of books. Some of his favorite shops are Atomic Books, the Hampden store where for years his mail has been delivered, Normal's in Waverly and Royal Books on 25th Street.
And don't give gift cards. At least not to anyone you actually like.
"It just means they think you're stupid and you have no interests, or you're too lazy to look," he says. Restaurant gift cards are acceptable. He wouldn't mind receiving a gift card to Peter's Inn in Fells Point, his favorite restaurant.
Or you could make him an ornament. Fans and friends have sent him all kinds of crazy decorations — a birdhouse modeled after the Unabomber's boarded-up cabin, a bedazzled antler, a bust of John Travolta as Edna Turnblad in "Hairspray" (2007).
"Go through your family albums, find the ugliest photos of your relatives and make balls," Waters says.
One artist made a glittering depiction of the Christmas scene in "Female Trouble" in which Divine's character, enraged after her parents fail to give her cha-cha heels, knocks the tree onto her mother and stomps on the presents.
The scene was inspired by the time the tree actually fell on Waters' grandmother. Not because of a teenage temper tantrum, though.
"I wasn't there, but I've exaggerated it in my family and in my own mind," says Waters. "She wasn't injured. My presents weren't ruined. Going around the world, people tell me Christmas trees do fall over a lot on people. Usually it's the dog."
Waters puts as much thought into his Christmas card as he does into gift-giving. One year there was a picture of him wearing grills on his teeth. Another time, he sent out ornaments with fake cockroaches inside.
That one winds up posted for sale online sometimes. A terrible faux pas.
"Sell it on eBay — I'll find out who you are and burn your house down," he says.
The card is an important tradition, like the decorations that his old friend, Bob Adams, helps him put up each year. Adams, who appeared as a cop in "Pink Flamingos" and has a Christmas shop in Havre de Grace, knows just what to place where — the Justin Bieber ball and the albums by Johnny Mathis, The Chipmunks and "some scary child singing" on the mantel, under the Warhol.
The party, like most things that persist for half a century, follows certain traditions. Waters' sister-in-law lays out the greens. His mother and siblings attend. Caterer Wolhandler, Waters and an old friend taste each dish before the party begins. Bizarro films play silently in each room. Everyone who's anyone attends, including the governor, the mayor, even Pat Sajak in recent years.
There's a certain nostalgia, not just of the kitschy, Johnny Mathis variety, but for memories of the '70s and '80s when guests were high on pot and amphetamines and Waters would chuck the most outrageous gifts from the seventh-floor apartment where he used to live.
Christmas was an obsession for Divine, aka Harris Glenn Milstead. He was always in trouble with Watson's Garden Center in Lutherville for writing bad checks for decorations, Waters says.
"It wasn't because he was being criminal. He just loved Christmas so much, and he loved Christmas decorations," Waters says. "I still have a cashmere blanket in my bedroom that Divine gave me for Christmas when he could not afford a cashmere blanket, and who knows who actually paid for it?"
"Christmas is when I miss Divine the most," he says. "He was a wonderful host."
If you go
A John Waters Christmas runs Dec. 19 and 20 at Baltimore Soundstage, 124 Marketplace. Tickets are $44 in advance, $49.50 day of show. baltimoresoundstage.com
Recommendations: Waters' favorite places to shop for Christmas presents in Baltimore:
Atomic Books, 3620 Falls Road, Hampden, atomicbooks.com
Normal's, 425 E. 31st St., Waverly, normals.com
Royal Books, 32 W. 25th St., Charles Village, royalbooks.com
The Store Ltd., 5100 Falls Road, Cross Keys
Value Village, 5013 York Road, Govans
[An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the type of camera John Waters uses at his party. Details about a "Hairspray" ornament were also misstated. The Sun regrets the errors.]Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun