The jolly man with the white beard and rumbling laugh was tired and cramped from a day of sorting and packing toys, so he donned his red suit, headed out to the driveway and climbed in his sleigh for a ride.
He flipped two switches, one activating a set of flashing red-and-green lights, the other a stereo system that blasted “Here Comes Santa Claus” (the Elvis version) at North Pole-sized volume.
And Tom Hammacher, better known in southeastern Baltimore County as “Santa Tom,” began waving and “ho-ho-ho-ing” as a friend towed him and his 22-foot sled through the streets of Dundalk.
“I had no idea I live so close to Santa,” said Shayna Blankenship, who brought her toddler grandson, Lucas Roe, over for a visit when Hammacher pulled to the curb. “Lucas saw him through the window and had to meet him. How can you say no to that?”
“I would do anything to bring Christmas to more children and families,” Hammacher said after they left. “I don’t care about anything as much as this. I live and die for Christmas.”
Hammacher, a semi-retired handyman and lifelong Dundalk resident, has built his life around the Yuletide holiday since 1999. He uses his home-made sled and abundant energies more or less year-round to raise funds and the spirits of those he meets, with the goal of providing toys — and Christmas trees, winter clothes and dinner fixings — for children who would otherwise go without on Dec. 25.
About 200 boys and girls in nearly 80 families will open presents this morning thanks to Hammacher, 58, a man who decided years ago to marshal the holiday spirit and share it with as many people as possible — particularly kids.
All he requires is that families fill out a one-page application (children are encouraged to submit wish lists), and that parents make sure the youngsters don’t open their gifts until Christmas Day.
“No child should wake up on Christmas morning without having a tree and some presents so they can enjoy the magic of the day,” he says. “I’ll tell you right now, I never stop thinking about new ways to make it happen.”
Those who know Santa Tom say his crusade — now in its 20th year — has brought more joy to his hometown and beyond than can really be measured.
Valerie Paugh, who grew up in Dundalk, manages a Big Lots store that has supported his efforts for eight years She says people with “a big, big heart” like Hammacher are indispensable.
“His kids are grown and out of the house; he doesn’t need to do any of this,” she says. “He does it because he actually just loves helping others. In our community, which has several areas where people live in poverty, that means so much I can’t even tell you. We need our Santa Tom.”
Paugh says she warmed to his mission when she met him in 2010, in part because she remembers being “one of those kids” whose parents often couldn’t afford much for the holiday, no matter how hard they worked. Hammacher says the two collection barrels Paugh displays in her storefront bring in hundreds of toys for Santa’s Elves, the small charity he leads and propels.
Tom Hammacher III’s love affair with Christmas began half a century ago when he was growing up in a close-knit family in Dundalk.
Every December, he recalls, he and his younger siblings, John and Gloria, were privileged to enjoy a Christmas made special by parents he describes — admiringly — as “idiots” about the holiday.
Tom Jr. and Gloria Hammacher didn’t just serve up presents and a tree; they kept the gifts hidden — and the tree undecorated — until the kids turned in Christmas Eve.
“They had to have been up till 4 in the morning, and they got out of bed with us at 5, and they loved it,” Hammacher says. “How many kids have a Christmas like that today?”
He and his former wife, Kim, passed the insanity on to their own three children, and added a twist: an outdoor setup that included 32,000 lights, 60 blow-mold holiday figurines and nine giant inflatable Santas. (The scene was written up in the Dundalk Eagle more than once.)
Not every family is so lucky.
Two decades ago this month a neighbor they didn’t know well knocked on their door with a desperate plea: She couldn’t afford presents for her son, a 2-year-old who had recently been diagnosed with cancer.
The future Santa was moved. Then a vendor at Northpoint Flea Market, he rallied colleagues to gather toys and supplies. They needed a pickup to haul all the gifts.
He never forgot the mother’s gratitude — nor that, to the surprise of doctors, the boy’s cancer went into remission.
“I don’t know if that was some kind of sign, but seeing him recover was a definite inspiration,” Hammacher says. “Now he’s in his 20s and doing fine.”
He set a goal of helping ten families the next year, and ended up helping 17. The operation grew. He turned an old boat trailer into the sleigh-on-wheels. He donned the red suit and started making Santa Tom appearances. He and Kim registered the operation, then called Miracle on 46th Street, as a nonprofit.
Now known as Santa’s Elves, the outfit includes seven friends (Kim moved on after the couple split up), all of whom praise Hammacher’s dedication.
Randy Phillips, a wiring technician and childhood friend, signed on as an “elf” in 2014.
He drives the custom van with the Rudolf-red bulb on the front and the on-board marine battery that is used to tow the sleigh; this year, he helped Hammacher make $1,000 worth of lighting, wiring, painting and sound upgrades.
“You would not believe how much this man loves Christmas,” Phillips said at a fund-raiser this month, wearing a red-and-green elf hat. “It doesn’t matter if it’s July or December. He’s thinking about his next appearance, building another barrel [for donations], driving off to pick up toys somewhere, or improving the sled. He never, ever stops working on this.”
The work cycle begins just after the holiday, when he says he wakes up thinking about the charity’s principal fund-raising event: a crab feast in September for about 500 people.
There are calls to toy and food wholesalers, planning of spring and summer appearances and hours of networking with business people who might be willing to help.
They include John Darney, owner of Smokin’ Joe’s Grill in Dundalk, and Mike Tyson, who owns Pretty Boy’s Garden Center on German Hill Road. Both display Santa’s Elves barrels and host events at which Santa Tom appears, sitting in the flashing sleigh and posing for pictures.
Darney matches all toy donations at his place of business, and Tyson donates the Christmas trees.
Hammacher, his sleigh and an assortment of elves appeared at a Christmas in a July Toy Run in Middle River, the Baltimore Mayor’s Christmas Parade, Hampden’s “Miracle on 34th Street” and, as the season heated up, at a shelter for abused women and several fire houses.
By mid-December, the basement of the house he shares with his mother was overflowing with dolls, games, toy monster trucks, electronics and bicycles.
Ten tables were piled high with the stuff, and Hammacher and the elves were beginning to organize it all, one packing box per family. The families come by and pick up gifts three days before Christmas, an event Hammacher says is always “crowded and hectic but happy.”
Santa Tom says he’d love to see the children’s faces as they open their presents today, but he’ll settle for his usual quiet plans.
He’ll spend the morning having coffee with his mother, and the pair will take a lasagna along when they visit Tom’s sister later in the day.
“Christmas is about family,” he says.