For 32 years, Joe Jackson has donned the signature suit, beard, hat and glasses as the Santa Claus of Wyman Park.
The suit, made of red velvet purchased at Jos. A. Bank, dates back to before Jackson, 58, took on the jolly obligation. His mother, Marcie Jackson, sewed the suit for her late husband, Nick Jackson, in her kitchen with some friends from bridge club nearly 50 years ago.
“I got a couple of friends together and we took a pajama top and bottom and we literally, in the living room, cut a pattern to fit a Santa Claus costume,” said Marcie Jackson, 82. “And that’s how it started.”
Nick Jackson started dressing as Santa in the Springdale neighborhood of Cockeysville in the 1970s. In his homemade suit, he went door-to-door for hours, delivering gifts that families had dropped off the night before.
“The offer to ‘We’ll bring you something that your kid doesn’t expect he or she is going to get’ stopped when a family dropped off puppies,” said Joe Jackson, noting his father still delivered the gift. “What’s Santa gonna say, no?”
Marcie Jackson said when the family later lived in Midlothian, Virginia, her husband would go up and down the street in a truck, alerting the children to gather at their house. Santa would then hand out gifts in the backyard.
“It was absolutely thrilling to watch the joy of all the children. Even the ones that didn’t believe anymore knew that Santi Claus was going to give them something special,” said Marcie Jackson, using her preferred pronunciation of Santa. “And it was a very special time for my husband, which he relished for days before it came and he talked about it for a couple days afterwards.”
When the family eventually moved back to Baltimore and until he died in 2017, Nick Jackson started wearing the suit only for the family’s Christmas Eve party to read the perennial holiday favorite “The Night Before Christmas.”
“Nobody had the heart to say there’s no reason to do this anymore because nobody believes in Santa Claus,” Joe Jackson said. “For the last two years, I had to help him get dressed. He didn’t have the strength to get into the costume by himself but he insisted on doing it.”
Joe Jackson, the eldest of his five brothers, took over for his father at the annual family gathering at his brothers’ insistence that the tradition remain unbroken. Jackson wears the same suit, reads from the same copy of “The Night Before Christmas” and cracks the same jokes.
But nearly 30 years before Jackson became the family Santa, he took on the role in 1990 for the holiday celebration at Wyman Park in Hampden, sharing the suit with his father.
“We do not lend out the Santi Claus costume,” Marcie Jackson said. “We’ve had many, many requests, but it’s very dear to my family. It’s a great tradition and we just don’t lend it out.”
On Dec. 17, Joe Jackson suited up for the Wyman Park holiday celebration for the first time since 2019. Although Santa makes an appearance, the event is nondenominational, said Simon Torres, president of the Wyman Park Community Association in North Baltimore.
At around 9 a.m., Jackson pulled on the well-worn suit, which has had minor repairs over the years, such as replacing the fur and adding a new belt; the costume was laid out a couple of days beforehand to ensure it was in good condition.
Jackson then turned his attention to his face, whitening his dark eyebrows and pruning his wig and beard. His mother watched him get ready, preparing to see him perform in Wyman Park for the first time.
“Over the years, we’ve had many wigs and beards. My husband was never able to find the exact one that he wanted,” Jackson said. “He would be very pleased with what Joe has found.”
Next, Joe Jackson climbed into the bed of a neighbor’s red pickup truck and traveled through the neighborhood, ringing sleigh bells and playing Christmas carols to let the neighborhood kids know Santa was in town. For the past two years, that’s when Jackson halted his performance because of the coronavirus pandemic.
But that Saturday, about 60 parents and children spilled out of their homes to meet Jackson in the baseball field at 37th Street and Beech Avenue. Jackson sat in a chair, flanked by Mrs. Claus and his elf, Anders Lindahl-Ackerman, and greeted children who sat on his lap for a present and a picture.
Anders, 9, who uses they/them pronouns, fed names and Christmas wishes to Santa. They also fetched age-appropriate gifts for each child from Santa’s three bags.
“I like little kids and giving them presents and stuff,” Anders said in a phone call. “It was a little cold, yeah, and there were a lot of kids. But I’m glad I did it and I felt like I was happy that other kids got to have it.”
In previous years, Anders’ brother, Everett, played the role of the elf. Their mother, Michaela Lindahl-Ackerman, said her family has been attending the Wyman Park holiday event since Everett, now 12, was a few months old.
The event had hot chocolate, coffee and homemade sweets. Everett continually ran hot chocolate to Anders to keep them warm in their thin costume.
Torres witnessed Jackson in action for the first time this year.
“For Joe to do this for the neighborhood and the kids in the neighborhood and to be able to witness how much joy he’s able to bring, that’s the highlight,” Torres said. “Every year this is something that people look forward to because it brings a bit of joy and it brings a bit of celebration.”
Jackson’s duties have even extended to house calls. In 2017, Jackson’s neighbors Sanchita Balachandran and Anand Pandian needed help with their two children, Karun and Uma, who were 9 and 5 at the time.
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“We were getting the sense that they were listening to friends who were kind of questioning whether Santa really existed,” Balachandran said.
Jackson dressed as Santa and set up toys under a tree in Balachandran’s and Pandian’s backyard, mentioning each of their children by name. They captured his performance on a GoPro and showed it to the children on Christmas morning. It stumped them. Karun took the video to his class, sparking a debate over its authenticity.
“He didn’t need to do that. It was cold out there, it was raining that evening,” Balachandran said. “He just did it out of the goodness of his heart because he felt like it was worth kind of doing for two little kids.”
It’s not all smooth sailing — Jackson admits to complaining every year as he pulls on the suit, to the point where his wife and Mrs. Claus, Joselin Martin, gets a photo of him each year partially dressed, “giving the finger.”
Still, Jackson plans to become Santa for years to come. When he eventually retires, there’s one nephew he has an eye on to potentially take over spreading the Christmas cheer.
“Anybody who knows me knows I am otherwise a bit of a Scrooge. I’m not a religious person; Christmas doesn’t mean a lot to me. This is really carrying on a tradition,” Jackson said. “As a person who has been blessed in life in a lot of different ways with good health and a happy family, it’s a pleasure to do it.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Jacques Kelly contributed to this article.