Present Tense Baltimoreans share their favorite gifts (or in some cases, gift fails) along with holiday traditions they embrace.

By Sarah Achenbach



Ava Marie
Morning meteorologist, WBAL TV
“Last Christmas, our family surprised us with an indoor slide for our toddler’s playroom. It made my heart so happy to see the pure joy in his eyes. Even better yet, he was so tired after sliding all day, he slept for 12 hours straight the next night. It was the longest stretch since he was born. I can’t think of a better present for new parents than that!”

Tiffany Zappulla, SDSA
Emmy-nominated set decorator for “House of Cards” and “Veep”; owner, TAZ Designs
“I was about 8 years old, and I gave my dear friend an enamel pin resembling her beloved dachshund. When she opened the box, she burst into tears. As I stood there stunned, her parents explained that her dog had died that morning. Even today, the memory still makes me cringe! Epic gift fail thanks to horrible timing!”

Sam Gallant
Midday host, WTMD
“One of my favorite holiday traditions in Baltimore is the annual Mayor’s Christmas Parade. I have watched it many times from along 36th Street in Hampden, but last year, my family and I got to walk in the parade with WTMD. It was an incredible and memorable experience that makes the parade even more special for me now and in the future.”

Helga M. Surratt
President and co-owner, About Faces Day Spa & Salon
“Every year I chuckle when the last-minute gift buyers knock on the About Faces doors as we lock up on Christmas Eve and plead to get a gift certificate for their loved ones. Still the best gift, they say — no sizes needed. We always oblige, knowing we made others happy.”

Joyce J. Scott
Visual and performing artist; 2016 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” recipient
“I was an only child and always got everything I wanted. At Christmas, we would leave cookies for Santa that I would eat. I would tell my mother and father that ‘Santa only needs one cookie.’ I felt it was my dispensation to be naughty. When I was 7, I received one of those metal toy sedans. I loved that car. We lived in an apartment, and I am sure that I bumped into everyone and everything.”

Ken and Matt Praay
Brothers and co-founders, Monument City Brewing Company
Ken: “For the holidays, we don’t really give gifts to each other anymore. Mostly because we’re poor and not very creative.”
Matt: “We do enjoy hiking and camping together. Holiday hiking in the Shenandoah or up and down the AT are the most memorable.”

Nancy Cohen
President and owner, Eddie’s of Roland Park
“My family was never great big gift-givers. For Hanukkah gifts, I like to give experiences. I remember the first time my parents took me to New York City. One year for the holiday, when the boys were young, I took them to see “Phantom of the Opera” on Broadway and to this day, my youngest loves improv, and it’s because of that trip. Another year, I took them to the British Virgin Islands for scuba diving lessons. They are 30 and 33 now, and they still talk about that trip. I like to give gifts that make a difference to the recipient. That’s what makes me happy.”

US Rep. John Sarbanes
“On New Year’s Eve, our family has a longstanding tradition of taking a brisk walk at Fort McHenry, grabbing takeout at the Kumari Restaurant & Bar on Fort Avenue and having a cannoli from Vaccaro’s Italian Pastry Shop in Little Italy while we watch ‘When Harry Met Sally’ at midnight.”

Mayor Catherine E. Pugh
“Each holiday season, the mayor gets to welcome city residents to City Hall for a holiday open house. Last year was my first as mayor, and I was so moved by the incredible holiday spirit. There was music, apple cider and cookies and a beautiful larger-than-life Christmas tree. The atmosphere was festive, and I took pictures with hundreds of citizens who came to celebrate at City Hall. (This year’s event is Dec. 11, 5 p.m. at City Hall.)

Tim Hayden
School counseling department chair, Baltimore County Public Schools
“When my oldest son was 14, he wanted a red snowboarding jacket. I ordered one online from a reputable company and had it shipped to my brother’s house in Rhode Island where we were spending Christmas with my family. We arrived on Dec. 23 and the jacket arrived late afternoon on Christmas Eve. We didn’t open it until all the kids went to bed and my wife and I began wrapping our kids’ gifts. I opened the packaging and thought that it was a little shinier than I expected. When I unzipped it, there were naked, big-breasted blonde women printed on the lining. My wife and I were crying and almost peeing our pants with laughter. From across the room, my mother asked what was on the lining, and I replied, ‘Just what you think, Mom.’ My dad said, ‘He is going to be the coolest kid in middle school.’ It was four hours until Christmas morning and this was supposed to be one of his big gifts, so we ended up giving it to him, but explained that we were sending it back. He laughed when he opened it and wanted to look at it more closely. It was like giving our son a Penthouse magazine for Christmas. We then hid it from the rest of the mostly younger boys and shipped it back before we left Rhode Island to drive home to Baltimore.”

Rev. Greg Cochran
Associate pastor, Woodbrook Baptist Church; executive director, Well for the Journey
“When I was a boy in Six Mile, South Carolina, we had a silver Christmas tree with rotating lights flashing red, blue and green. One of my favorite memories was waking up on Christmas morning and seeing the toys already set up and glowing in the room because of the light. It was so perfect when my new Hot Wheels race track was set up and ready to go, with the lights shining on it. When our kids were little, I loved to set up their toys with the glow from the tree lights on them.”

Dr. Jim Fragetta
Maryland Pediatrics Group
“I had a medical conference in Orlando in early December the year our oldest child, Shelby, was 5. She was the age when it was Disney, Disney, Disney, with all the princesses. My wife and I arranged to take her with us to the conference and for our other child to stay with family. We didn’t tell her Shelby beforehand. The day we were leaving, it snowed. My wife had Shelby’s snow boots in her hand when we woke up Shelby, who asked if she was going to kindergarten in the snow. We told her that she wasn’t going to school, but was going to Disneyworld. Her eyes lit up and got big as saucers. It is one of the most amazing surprises we ever pulled off. I will remember it forever, that moment of unmitigated joy. I have spent my life with children, and those moments when you see magic happen are the best.”

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