It's not easy being red.
For decades, Santa Claus has anchored the Thanksgiving parade. A tough job, says the parade's longtime Santa, but somebody's got to do it for Baltimore's children.
There's the sweltering wool costume. The grueling hours of ho-ho-ho-ing. The pointed questions from increasingly suspicious kids.
And these days, there is also stiff competition.
SpongeBob SquarePants, the ubiquitous cartoon character "who lives in a pineapple under the sea," served as the grand marshal in yesterday's 53rd annual parade on Pratt Street. OK, so maybe it was a marketing intern dressed up as the yellow sponge, but tell that to the little kids who flocked around him.
Meanwhile, Santa, who has been part of the parade as long as organizers can remember, took his traditional spot -- at the end of the line.
Like the groundhog that signals the coming of spring, Santa's appearance at Baltimore's annual Thanksgiving parade heralds the beginning of the holiday season. And the parade's perennial Santa, Ed Bastress, takes his job seriously.
After nearly two decades in the Thanksgiving parade, Bastress, 66, of Baltimore now cultivates his white beard year-round for the event.
"This," he said, patting his bulging belly, "is natural too."
The week before the parade, he shines his boots, checks his suit, practices his laugh and overcomes last-minute jitters. He also flips through piles of toy catalogs to keep up with what's hot among his young constituents.
"These kids, they're getting smarter," he said. Some quiz him on electronic gadgets. Others ask him how he can be in the parade and at the malls at the same time.
Despite his hard work, some in yesterday's crowd -- estimated by parade organizers at about 20,000 people -- clearly favored the sponge over Saint Nicholas.
Gabrielle Toft, 2, waved and screamed when she saw SpongeBob's square yellow head.
"We just saw the new SpongeBob movie yesterday," said her mother, Suzanne Toft of Dundalk. "Right now, he's her favoritest person in the world."
Gabrielle's father, Joe Toft, attributed it to something else: "Kids are smarter these days, more world-wise, you know? Being Santa's a tough act."
Others, however, stood by their man in red.
"SpongeBob is a very good friend of mine," said Batman, another feature in the parade. "But you can't beat Santa Claus. He's like baseball, apple pie and the American flag rolled into one."
Batman (aka Lenny B. Robinson, 40, of Owings Mills) had fans of his own, who pressed around him to take pictures -- cowl, cape and all.
The important thing in the parade is to think about the children, he said as his Batmobile (a modified Chrysler Prowler) blared in a continuous loop the theme from the 1960s Batman television show.
When not posing for pictures or battling crime, Batman makes rounds with local doctors, putting his chiseled plastic muscles to good use at Sinai Hospital.
Other do-gooders in the parade lineup included the clown corps, a ragtag crew with bright colors and the occasional painted tear.
"We come here every year," said one clown, whose nametag read Sparky. The group clowns around for other causes as well, such as cystic fibrosis, he said. Sparky goes by the name of John DeLozier when not in white face paint and floppy shoes. He lives in Frederick County.
"Of course, some of us, like Ka-boom over there, are also semiprofessional," he said, pointing to a clown in a polka-dot top hat with a button reading, "Ask me about my vow of silence. "
Costumed paraders, like Batman, Santa and the clowns, face common hazards, Sparky said.
"We get jokes all the time, like, 'Where's your other wheel?'" (He rides a unicycle.) "I tell them I bought it at a half-price sale."
Up the street, Santa Claus said he gets occasional jokes as well. But usually adults are careful, dancing delicately around their children's faith in the big, jolly man.
And the kids are sometimes more scared than excited.
"Their parents tell them I know if they're bad or good. Well, no child is 100 percent good, so they come in scared," he said. "Usually I just tell them I know they've been good."
This year, Bastress rode into the parade not with Rudolph but atop a red Corvette convertible. And all along the parade route, children ran to catch up with him.
"Can you give me a bike?" "I want Barbies." "Legos, Legos."
One little girl ran to Bastress and handed him her pink-and-orange scarf as a present of her own.
At the end of the parade route, Bastress got out of the Corvette and headed to the "Santa's Place" booth at the Inner Harbor amphitheater to have pictures taken with children on his lap.
Grand marshal SpongeBob had already left for another event at a theater across town that was showing his new movie. And outside Santa's booth, a long line of parents and children were eagerly awaiting him.
So, still sweating from the parade, the man in red took a long sip of soda, blew his nose and settled into his green velvet chair.
"Ho, ho, ho," he chuckled as the first child climbed onto his lap. "What do you want for Christmas, little girl?"