Santa Claus takes many forms throughout the holiday season: there's the work party Santa, the parade float Santa and the illustrious mall Santa. In Baltimore, there's the Santa on a cargo bike carrying several hundred pounds worth of Christmas trees, trailed by the scent of slow-cooked pork.
Every weekend from Thanksgiving until shortly before Christmas, Todd Coleman and Mike Santoro dress as Santa Claus, load Douglas and Fraser firs on their bikes and pack a cooler full of pulled pork sandwiches. The duo run Pork 'N Pine: a local legend of a business that is Baltimore kitsch personified, founded in 2011, that delivers BBQ and Christmas trees to your door. They can carry up to eight trees each at a time and deliver up to of 30 a day.
The two source their trees from a farm in York, Pa. and their sandwiches from local caterer HarborQue. The BBQ arrives deconstructed — that is, meat, buns and sauces are packaged separately for a customer to build into a sandwich. On a recent bitterly cold Saturday morning, Santoro loaded the final trees of the year onto his bike and mounted a pink, paper mache pig atop. It looked a little sorry: one of its ears held on by a thread.
"I just found that in a dumpster this morning," Santoro quips, calling it a metaphor for 2020.
The two were worried the pandemic would slow their business. But the opposite happened, Coleman says. Pork 'N Pine outperformed last year's sales, selling 260 trees and about twice as many sandwiches this year, pedaling more than 1,000 across Baltimore to deliver them. They say they would have sold more trees were it not for the shortage.
"Everyone's just Googling like delivery for everything now," Coleman says. "So Christmas tree delivery, we're the first thing that pops up in Baltimore. So people are just like, this is weird, but you guys popped up on the Google."
After mapping out their final route of the year, Santoro prepares the duo's last vital feature: an eclectic, mostly punk Christmas playlist, blasting out of a boombox. It has just one rule: no Mariah Carey.
"You can only listen to 'All I want for Christmas [Is You]' this year so many times," Santoro says.
Once Santoro hits play, the pair, and this reporter, take off on our bikes into the cold morning. Santoro and Coleman don Santa suits and face masks: Coleman wears one behind his fake beard, Santoro wears one with a Santa beard print.
As the two bike throughout the city, Baltimoreans collectively lose their minds. City residents roll down the windows of their cars, shrieking with glee. Some stop in their tracks and laugh. Many pull out their smartphones to record the sight.
"People will yell at us to stop, to slow down, like 'I wanna take a picture!'" Coleman says. "I'm like, 'I love you, I would love to stop, but this is 500 lbs of Christmas tree!' "
A few miles later, Santoro and Coleman arrive at Liz Graham and Elena Gaeta's house, as a punk version of "Feliz Navidad" echoes in the air.
"Hello! Merry Christmas!" Santoro shouts. He handles the pulled pork sandwiches, while Coleman unstraps a tree from his bike. In normal years, Pork 'N Pine touted tree setup as part of their package of services. This year, that service is optional, and everyone must wear face masks indoors and outside.
Graham and Gaeta are decked out in festive masks, eager for their tree. They say they hired Pork' N Pine to brighten up an otherwise gloomy holiday season.
"We got pork sandwiches out of it, so that helped," Graham says.
After Coleman set the tree into a base comes the usual question — could he pose for a picture?
"You don't get to come out of the house dressed like a mascot and not get pictures taken," Coleman says.
The trio stand before the Fraser fir, which spans 7ft tall. Afterwards, Coleman is hit with another standard question.
"Do you guys just literally drive the bikes through the city?" Graham asks, skeptical of the Pork 'N Pine bikes, which lack a motor.
"Sixty miles every Saturday!" Coleman says.
The biking Santas say their goodbyes and deliver a few more trees before arriving at the next home. This time, Santoro does the honors, lifting a 6ft tree over his shoulder and into the Oroczo family's rowhome.
"Hello, Merry Christmas!" he shouts, putting his Santa persona on full display for Cecilia, age 5, and Rosa, 3. "How are you?"
"We're good," their mother Angela Orozco says. "We're surviving!"
The family are repeat customers. It's hard to beat pulled pork and punk Christmas music, Simon Orozco says.
"We were worried they wouldn't be doing it because of the pandemic," he says. "So then I looked it up and I was like, 'oh yeah, they're coming this year?' Awesome."
With that delivery, the biking Santas have finished the season — one they say was defined by households with new puppies adopted to cure the pandemic blues and socially distanced photos.
The two have day jobs, and while they turn a profit from Pork 'N Pine, largely operating it to spread some holiday cheer throughout the city. This year, that shared joy takes on a more poignant meaning.
"It feels really good to be able to give this to people," Coleman says.
"This year feels even more rewarding than any other year, because it has just been such a bummer," Santoro concurs. "A tree and a smile mean more now."
Usually, to celebrate their final delivery, the pair hit up a dive bar before throwing a massive party. This year, with city bars and restaurants closed to curb the spread, they've had to make other plans.
"We're going to get a bottle of mezcal and get to the worm," Santoro says.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Every holiday season, we expect to see people dressed up like Santa, and sometimes they turn up in unusual places. In Baltimore, two people dressed as Old St. Nick have been steering cargo bikes full of Christmas trees trailed by the scent of slow-cooked pork. WYPR's Emily Sullivan got on her own bike and caught up with them.
EMILY SULLIVAN, BYLINE: It's a bitterly cold morning, and Todd Coleman is loading five Fraser firs onto his bike.
TODD COLEMAN: So if I stack these right, I can usually get about eight on here, which is pretty fun. That's a spectacle.
SULLIVAN: He's gearing up for another day with his business, Pork 'N Pine. Together, he and his friend Mike Santoro dress as Santa and deliver a pine tree and pulled pork sandwiches throughout Baltimore by bike. The sandwiches stay in a cooler. The trees are strapped into a cargo holder. Picture a shopping cart attached to the front of a mountain bike. On top of the tree mound on Santoro's bike is a pink papier mache pig. It's looking a little sorry. One of its ears is dangling off.
MIKE SANTORO: I just found that in the dumpster this morning.
SULLIVAN: It's a metaphor for 2020, he says. The two were worried the pandemic would slow their business, but Coleman says the opposite happened.
COLEMAN: Actually, it picked up this year because everyone's just Googling, like, delivery for everything now. So Christmas tree delivery, we're the first thing that pops up in Baltimore. So people are just like, this is weird, but you guys popped up on the Google. We're like, all right.
SULLIVAN: They've sold 260 trees and about twice as many sandwiches this year, biking nearly a thousand miles across Baltimore to deliver them. After mapping out today's route, Santoro hops on his bike and turns up the volume on an eclectic Christmas playlist on a boombox. It has just one rule.
SANTORO: Anything that's not Mariah Carey. You can only listen to "All I Want For Christmas Is You" so many times.
SULLIVAN: Then we're off. The pair are donning Santa suits and wearing face masks behind their fake beards. As we bike, people roll down their windows, stop in their tracks, and more than a few pull out their smartphones to record the sight. The first stop of the day is just a few miles away.
LIZ GRAHAM: Hello.
SANTORO: Merry Christmas.
GRAHAM: Merry Christmas.
SULLIVAN: Santorum gets the sandwiches out of the cooler while Coleman unstraps a tree from his bike and heads inside the house. Liz Graham says she hired Pork 'N Pine to brighten up an otherwise gloomy holiday season.
GRAHAM: And we got pork sandwiches out of it, so that helped.
SULLIVAN: After Coleman sets the tree up comes the usual question. Could he pose for a picture with her and Elena Gaeta?
COLEMAN: You don't get to come out of the house dressed like a mascot and not get pictures taken.
GRAHAM: Can you guys answer something for us?
ELENA GAETA: Do you guys just literally drive the bikes through the city?
COLEMAN: Sixty miles every Saturday.
GAETA: Oh, wow.
SULLIVAN: The biking Santas say their goodbyes, deliver a few more trees, and then they arrive at the next home. Santoro does the honors this time, lifting a 7-foot fir over his shoulder and into the Orozco family's rowhome.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hi.
SANTORO: Hello. Merry Christmas. How are you?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Merry Christmas.
SANTORO: How's it going?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We're good. We're surviving right there.
SULLIVAN: They're repeat customers. Simon Orozco says it's hard to beat pulled pork and punk Christmas music. His kids go crazy for it.
SIMON OROZCO: We were worried they wouldn't be doing it because of the pandemic, so then I looked it up. And I was like, oh, yeah, they're coming this year. Awesome.
SULLIVAN: And with that delivery, the biking Santas have finished their season, one filled with COVID puppies and social distancing.
COLEMAN: It feels good, feels really good to be able to give this to people.
SANTORO: I think this year feels even more rewarding than any other year because it has been such a bummer of a year.
SULLIVAN: Usually, to celebrate their final delivery, the pair hit up a dive bar before throwing a massive party. This year, they've had to make other plans.
SANTORO: We're going to get a bottle of mezcal and get to the worm.
SULLIVAN: For NPR News, I'm Emily Sullivan in Baltimore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.