The 3-year-olds were jumping with excitement before the first sleigh bell jingled.
Their eyes widened as Santa and Mrs. Claus entered their classroom yesterday at Carroll Child Care Centers Inc., a not-for-profit center in Westminster with more than 80 children ranging in age from 6 weeks to 10 years old.
"They've known for a few weeks that Santa was coming today, so they've been planning for it," said JoAnn Goldberger, the center's executive director.
"Santa! Santa! Santa!" "Did you bring the reindeer?" "I have a Christmas tree." "I have a new belt," children called out as the big man called their names and sat them on his lap.
A few preferred to stand, looking shyly at the floor. But not Amber Keeney, who pointed to a decoration on the big, sunny window and told him, "Santa, that's you!"
While most small-town officials find December to be a slow month, New Windsor Mayor Sam M. Pierce finds more demands on his time than ever. He has been playing Santa Claus for more than 30 years and has his own velvet suit. He even begins growing his white beard on the Fourth of July.
"Senior centers, day care, Lions, Rotary - there are about 15 different things in the next three weeks," he said of his bookings.
Pierce first donned the red and white about 1967, he recalled, soon after he and his wife, Doris, who plays Mrs. Claus, moved to Carroll County.
"I started at the Lions Club children's party, and it just grew since then. In the last three years, it's kind of grown to many different places," he said. "Now people start calling in July to get their names on the list."
Pierce, 70, retired in 1995 and sold his business, Metropolitan Medical Inc., a vendor of respirator and anesthesia equipment and supplies, he said. The company, now based in Winchester, Va., was then located in West Virginia, about an hour's drive away.
The Pierces moved to Carroll in 1965. About 20 years later, they moved to New Windsor, where in 2001 Pierce ran unopposed and was elected mayor.
The highlight of this month's Town Council meeting - as usual - was the cookies and punch at the town hall after a tree-lighting ceremony and carols at the town park on Main Street. The council's monthly work session was canceled.
But Pierce began his busy holiday schedule last Wednesday with a Lions Club party. His ride on a New Windsor Volunteer Fire Co. truck was rained out Friday, so he will reschedule that trip through area neighborhoods, waving at children as firefighters give out candy.
"Santa just sits on the fire truck and waves," he said. "It can be a cold gig."
Yesterday's event was much warmer, despite the gusty winds outside.
"I hear him," said Samantha "Sami" Sauter, 4, popping up on her knees and clapping her hands as her 4- and 5-year-old classmates waited in a circle. When Pierce entered, she grinned ear to ear, showing a newly lost tooth.
"Maybe I ought to bring you a new tooth," Pierce joked, but Sami said she wanted "another baby doll and a car seat and a crib."
Jadakis Fields, 6, wanted a Power Ranger. Braedon Welsh, 4, wore a special shirt for the occasion that read, "Dear Santa, please don't talk to my teacher."
Mrs. Claus wrote the children's wishes on a spool of paper as they were called up one by one.
One boy wondered aloud, "How do you know all our names?"
Goldberger explained that as part of Santa's visit, each child received a new, wrapped book with their names on the gift tag.
"'Bye, Santa; 'bye, Mrs. Claus." "Thank you, Santa," several children said, as Sami ran to hug him as he left their classroom.
Goldberger said she had been desperately seeking a Santa for about three weeks when fortune smiled.
"We had been searching high and low," she said. "Our Santa Claus used to be a maintenance man, but they sold the property, and he moved on. On our board is the Rev. David Schafer, the pastor of St. Benjamin's Lutheran Church in Westminster. A member of his congregation had won a Christmas tree and a visit with Santa that she didn't need."
Schafer dropped by yesterday to see how the donation by parishioner Laura Russell was received. Looking at the children's faces, he said he planned to report back on its success. "This is what it's all about."
"I knew Sam Pierce from the Chamber of Commerce," Goldberger said. "I told him, 'You've been traded.' Sam is so personable."
Pierce bought his suit about 10 years ago, and about four years ago began growing his beard, after years of wearing fake ones.
"About half a year it takes to get a good beard," he said. "I shave it off Christmas Eve."
Goldberger said she was so thrilled by the visit that she's thinking ahead to next year.
"He said to call him again, but call in July," she said. "So I already put it down in my calendar - and we will."