Santa spreads cheer in Highlandtown


The life of an urban Santa is far from easy.

Take the life of Highlandtown's Father Christmas, a long-suffering and patient man who presides on a red velvet chair in a former bridal shop in the 3700 block of Eastern Ave.

"The other day I had a teen-ager come in and ask if I could blow up Patterson High School for her. She was being chased by other students. She must have had it rough," said Frank Littles, 59, who dons a crimson suit and snowy beard for the Highlandtown Merchants Association. Come springtime, he puts on a white outfit with floppy ears and becomes the Easter bunny.

Littles, who grew up in Waverly in the 400 block of E. 28th St., has lived in Southeast Baltimore's Highlandtown for the past 40 years, most recently in the 200 block of S. Highland Ave. He does not travel by car or reindeer. He uses his feet to get to work.

"One night about nine years ago, I was walking on Regester Street and got mugged real bad. The police told me I was hit with a blackjack. It left me blind in one eye," he said.

Santa's bad eye did not go unnoticed by his junior visitors. One day last week, a boy came in, visited Santa and pulled a very small plastic eye out of his pocket.

"I think he pulled it off a toy reindeer on a candy cane. I put it up here on the mantle piece along with the other gifts."

Littles had been a house painter before he was mugged. When he's not entertaining children, he delivers circulars in the neighborhood.

During the holiday season, some children are terrified at the sight of a big man in a red suit with a long white curling beard. There are temper tantrums, laughs and smiles. All are part of a day's work.

"The worst part are the parents," Littles said. "They force the children to visit Santa. Nobody wants to be forced to do anything. I like to win the child's confidence, to get him to walk up to the steps to my chair. Sometimes I ring my set of sleigh bells. That helps. But the child has to want to take the step."

One day a boy walked up to him and kicked him four times in the leg.

"I thought this was pretty bad so I picked him right up, lifted him in the air and put him on my lap to quiet him down," Littles said. "When he got calmed, he told me what he wanted for Christmas and I thought all would be well. Then I put him down on the floor. He kicked me twice again."

On another occasion, a diaperless baby urinated all over him.

"His mother was very upset and offered to pay for dry cleaning my suit. I told her no so she had five photos taken at $5 a piece to pay for the cleaning," he said.

L This Santa is wise to the ways of the city and his visitors.

He finds that city children often doubt part of "The Night Before Christmas" legend because they do not have working fireplaces, mantles and readily visible chimneys.

"I tell them I have a magic key that lets me in the front door. One skeptical little boy said, 'I don't believe you have a key.' Well, I dug into my pocket and pulled out the key to the front door here. He left believing," Littles said.

People with pets who want pictures with Santa Claus are a special breed.

"We had a toy collie in here the other day," Littles said. "The people spent an hour with their dog getting the right picture. Children would come and go but these dog owners stayed until they felt they had the right photo.

"Sometimes it gets extreme. I've had to pose with a Saint Bernard, a German Shepherd and a pair of ferrets. No snakes yet, but one woman was photographed with her pet box turtle."

Other people just cannot resist St. Nick.

"I had four ladies come in a couple years ago," Littles recalled. "I JTC don't know how much they each weighed but they were real wide. They wanted their pictures taken together on my lap. Well, one sat on the left arm of my chair. One sat on the right and the other two sat on each of my knees. It was so much weight on that chair that it went crunch and the back legs broke. We had to throw it away. It almost killed me. They acted as if nothing was wrong."

What Littles doesn't like about playing Santa is the slack time when no children come through the front door. "It's not like a mall here in Highlandtown. We have plenty of time for everybody," he said.

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