Warming up to Christmas


Susannah Bridget Siger, Oh, what a difference a year makes -- or at least the weather.

Last December's low temperatures and early snowfall gave more of a North Pole than North Baltimore feel to the annual Mayor's Christmas Parade through the city's Hampden and Medfield neighborhoods, and it was about as populated.

But yesterday's sunshine, combined with just enough chill in the air to justify wearing a woolly winter scarf, drew back to the parade route thousands of spectators and about 160 marching bands, floats and kitschy marchers who make the parade a hallmark of the holiday season.

"Many people say that, to them, the Christmas season hasn't started until they've seen the Christmas parade," said Susannah Bridget Siger, owner of the Oh! Said Rose and Ma Petite Shoe shops in Hampden. "It really kicks off the Christmas season. Anything before that is just warm-up."

Started in the early 1970s by the community associations and businesses of Hampden and Medfield, the parade follows a 2 1/2 -mile route along Falls Road from the Poly-Western high school campus to The Avenue, or 36th Street, and ends at Chestnut Avenue and 37th Street.

This year's contingent included a Mummers band from Philadelphia whose neon feather headdresses were very Hampden, and whose accordions, saxophones, banjos and drums brought cheers and toe-tapping.

There were step groups and drum bands so loud that they rattled store windows and set off the security alarm of a car parked along The Avenue.

And there was a Bolivian dance troupe, a flat-bed truck with a square-dancing Santa Claus, a fleet of Harley-Davidson motorcycles, a tow-truck bearing a life-size gingerbread house, and an enormous wooden cross carrying a costumed angel and manger scene.

Earning some of the most enthusiastic applause was a small group of cheerleaders in pink tights and fishnet stockings calling themselves the Hampden Charm School. Led by Siger, the employees of Oh! Said Rose and Ma Petite Shoe boogied their way down The Avenue.

"We're ironic cheerleaders," Siger said, noting that the sassy group included "two reformed high school cheerleaders."

The store owner made her first parade appearance seven years ago when she and some friends donned beaded evening gowns and climbed into the back of a white pickup truck. This year's cheerleading squad, she said, was "the next evolution" from the 1950s-style pinup girls' costumes that they wore in 2002 and last year's go-go dancers, who sashayed down the street to Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'." Taking it all in was a crowd as varied as the parade's offerings.

Michelle Fewster, 28, of Medfield, has stood in the same spot along the parade route every year since she was 14. As a child, she looked forward to the event as a sign that Christmas was coming. Now, as a mother, Fewster said the parade serves as a cheerful tradition to carry on with her 8-year-old son, Dereck.

Nancy Glaser, 34, of Reisterstown had never been to the parade. The chance to see her college roommate chauffeur one of the parade's dignitaries drew her to Hampden. With her 6-month-old daughter, Lea, strapped to her chest and 3-year-old son, Noah, perched on the curb, Glaser complimented the character of the neighborhood and the occasion.

"It's a very spirited town. It gets people in the holiday spirit. We're actually Jewish," she added, laughing.

Like many Ravens football fans in the crowd, Scott Fenters, 41, of Manchester faced a bit of a problem yesterday afternoon. It was either watch the parade that he's attended since he was a boy growing up in Hampden or go to the football game "with the rest of the men in the family."

He found some middle ground on the sidewalk outside one of Hampden's art galleries, where he watched the holiday parade with his wife, Teresa, and their four children, and used his cell phone's Web browser to regularly update those around him on the score of the Ravens-Bengals game.

"It's a great tradition for us," Fenters said. "My wife and I both grew up in the Hampden area, and we've been coming to the parade as long as it's been going on. Now that we have kids, we come here and go down to see the lights on 34th Street, and that's how we kick off our holiday."

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