For many children there is something extra magical at Christmastime. Maybe it’s the hot chocolate, pop-up ice skating rinks or waiting for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve.
When Skip Lawrence was a child, there was something even more magical. Living in a year-round Christmas town, complete with most of Santa’s reindeer — just no Rudolph. There was also a Christmas circus with the man himself arriving by helicopter.
For Lawrence, this was his reality when he was a boy in 1948, living in Savage, Maryland.
“It was a unique little town, and at the time there weren’t a lot of places with one unifying factor,” Lawrence said. “And what’s better than Christmas?”
At this time of year, Lawrence and other Savage natives find themselves reminiscing about the town that has since given up its Christmas identity.
The little-known history of the time Savage was a Christmas village is on display in Ellicott City in the first exhibit retelling the story. Local historians from the Savage Historical Society and the Howard County Welcome Center traced the facts and pieced together the history.
Lawrence’s family moved from Baltimore to Savage to work for the eccentric Baltimore businessman Harry Heim, the president of Santa Novelties Inc., a Christmas-ornament company.
In February 1947, Heim bought more than 100 houses in Savage along with a textile mill known today as Savage Mill, according to a history of the city. The purchase brought dozens of jobs to the county’s 1,400 residents — including Lawrence’s parents — and an immense amount of Christmas spirit.
Heim wanted to make Savage a year-round Christmas village — which he did for three lively years, Lawrence said. He even tried to change the name of the town to Santa Heim, Merrieland, but was rejected by state officials.
Part of the year-round Christmas included eight living reindeer in an outdoor pen next to Carroll Baldwin Hall, which was the center of town, making it almost impossible to miss them, he said. Lawrence passed Santa’s reindeer hundreds of times a week and remembers feeding and petting the animals, “which was very special for an 8-year-old.”
Ten months after Heim purchased Savage, the town opened for a festive day called Santa Heim, when visitors could experience an over-the-top Christmas celebration.
Three trains with 6-foot-tall Santa heads attached to the front transported children and parents from Washington, D.C., and Baltimore to Savage to see Santa himself, according to the Savage Mill website. Aboard the trains were German musicians and circus clowns.
Hosting a 10-car train from Camden Station – the “Santa-Heim Special” – that brought more than 800 visitors specifically to the Christmas village, was the one and only Santa Claus. For many riders, this was their first train ride and their first time getting to talk to Santa, according to the The Evening Sun.
“This was really living,” the journalist wrote. “They were going for a ride on a train with Santa Claus.”
Once at Santa Heim, more than 12,000 visitors were dazzled with Christmas lights adorning the town and Santa Novelties workers and townspeople dressed as Santas and storybook characters as far as the eye could see – the entire town was in on creating the festival. Visitors could even marvel at a one-ring circus featuring motorized circus animals.
Lawrence, now 80, said he remembers the lively, awe-inspiring energy and he specifically remembers seeing a lion at the circus. He said he also heard Santa flew into town on a helicopter, but unfortunately, he missed that moment.
“The thing I would say was the beautiful part of [the Christmas celebration] was it created a unity in that town so that everyone was somehow connected to the mill,” Lawrence said. “It kind of opened the world up to Savage.”
The year-round Christmas village lasted only three years, though. Heim had large ambitions for the yearly celebrations and the village itself, and they were larger than his wallet. In 1948, Heim was fined $100 for not paying taxes for his company or his personal finances.
The opening weekend of the second Santa Heim was abruptly closed due to a violation of Blue Laws – governing what activities are permitted on Sundays – and eventually the festival continued, but all the Sunday proceeds had to be donated to charity.
One year later, during the 1950 opening weekend, several fire hazards were found and the festival closed. The tents at the festival were made from flammable materials, and electrical wiring was of poor quality.
This series of festival hazards and tax evasion led to Heim’s company going bankrupt and, by 1951, Santa Novelties Inc. was no more. Heim’s property and belongings were sold in an auction.
When the celebration was held in 1948, Santa Novelties Inc. was estimated to have produced 60% of the nation’s Christmas ornaments, said Arnold and Lois Landvoigt of the Savage Historical Society.
The Landvoigts said they’ve pieced together the little recorded Santa Novelties history for the past two decades, and they began their journey after purchasing a box of ornaments at an auction in West Friendship.
“It turned out one of the boxes said Santa Novelties, Santa Heim, Merryland, so that’s when I started getting some interest,” Lois Landvoigt said.
She said she had no idea what a Santa Novelties ornament looked like, but now she and her husband can piece together the smallest details of the glass ornaments that tell them it’s a part of Heim’s history.
“It was those metal toppers, which were stamped, and it wasn’t pressed in very hard, but on the very top of the cap it said ‘MADE IN U S OF A’ in all caps,” Arnold Landvoigt said. “As far as we can tell, Corning [another glass ornament company] and Santa Novelties were the only ones using that particular cap.”
In 20 years, the Landvoigts have curated quite the collection of Santa Novelties ornaments, and they have far too many boxes of ornaments to count. Much of their collection is on display in Savage Mill and in the debut Santa Heim exhibit in Ellicott City’s Howard County Welcome Center.
The Landvoigts, along with the Savage Historical Society, worked with Alex Sullivan, the welcome center’s visitor services and community engagement manager, to piece together Heim’s story.
“It’s 1947, it’s right after World War II and it must have been so thrilling to see a town become a place purely for celebration,” Sullivan said.
She said, although Heim’s glory was a fiasco, “he was a total dreamer and I admire that.”
Ultimately, Sullivan wanted to help tell a little-known story through a specific lens that would help people understand the local history in Howard County, and part of that was just through the ornaments themselves.
The Santa Heim ornaments were hand painted with stencils and featured designs such as snowmen and jingle bells, and one of the ornament painters was Lawrence’s mother.
Lawrence said he remembers going into the mill often to visit his mom and dad – who was the mill superintendent – where it seemed like the whole town worked for Heim.
He looks back on the Santa Heim years of his childhood fondly.
“It’s a shame [Harry Heim] screwed it up because it was fun getting to grow up in a town with a community hall with eight reindeer year round,” Lawrence said.