When Jasmine Watkins saw the "Santa is Coming" sign go up at the Mannasota Avenue firehouse in Northeast Baltimore, she could hardly wait.
"I was like, 'Yaaaaaaaaaaaay!'" the 9-year-old said as she waited in line Saturday night to see Santa and take home candy and perhaps a stuffed animal or other gift.
And Santa -- known the other 364 days of the year as firefighter Francis "Butch" Linton -- could hardly wait to see Jasmine and the crowd of other youngsters his annual appearance attracts.
Linton, 57, said his wife bought him a Santa Claus outfit eight years ago, but his children were already too old and too savvy to be impressed by the red suit, white beard and "Ho, ho, ho!"
"I still wanted [a suit]. I'm a kid at heart," said Linton, a firefighter for 32 years. "I just wanted one to play Santa Claus with kids."
So he played the role for fellow firefighters' children, until one not-so-foggy December eve in 1993, Santa came to his boss to say:
"You know, I should bring my Santa Claus suit tomorrow night."
A tradition was born, and word spread through the working-class neighborhood. The first year, about two dozen children came; the next year, 50 or so; and the year after that, more than a hundred. This year, about 150 children came by and took home gifts.
Linton's firehouse collects donations, including candy-filled stockings and coloring books, and with a helping hand from the firefighters' union, there's plenty to give away every year.
Saturday night, a line started forming 40 minutes before Santa's 7 p.m. arrival, which was heralded by two blasts of an air horn that startled children at the front of the queue.
A fellow firefighter covers for Linton in the event of an emergency call during the two to three hours he's with the children; another colleague takes photographs of all the children with Santa, and a week or so later the families can come back and pick up their pictures.
"I'm surprised to see [a firehouse Santa]," said Gwendolyn Brooks, 55, whose 3-year-old twin grandchildren, Derick and Trevor, took home a stuffed cat and stuffed pig, plus coloring books. Elizabeth I. Graves thought her 8-year-old son Edward might be too old to see Santa, but she was surprised to see a lot of children his age Saturday night.
"I think it's nice. There are a lot of kids in the neighborhood whose parents can't get them anything," said Graves, 46, a corrections officer.
"I like stuffed animals, so I told him if he gets a stuffed animal, it's mine," Graves said.
She was joking, but when Edward got a coloring book, crayons, a stocking full of candy and a stuffed white kitten from Santa, he immediately walked up to his mother and presented her with the toy animal. "It's hers," he said.
Pub Date: 12/21/98