Last Saturday we were in New York, staying down at the bottom of Fifth Avenue, a stone’s throw from Washington Square Arch, which looked magical with its sparkling Christmas tree as snow began to fall. I went out early for coffee and the papers, and as I approached a Starbucks several blocks to the east, I passed a half dozen young people, three men and three women, all dressed as Santa Claus. Salvation Army bell ringers? I wondered. Department store salespeople?
Inside the Starbucks I saw more Santas, but didn’t ask anyone why, because I didn’t want to reveal myself as an out-of-towner. But when I read the papers it became clear. Even though I’ve lived for nearly 20 years in the City (a while ago), I knew nothing about SantaCon which happened on Saturday, an event that was causing lots of controversy among New Yorkers.
An op-ed piece by Jason Gilbert in The New York Times last Thursday had the title “Bring Drunken Santas Under Control”. It began “On Saturday, a festive, besotted mob of 20- and 30-somethings, decked out in various measures of Santa Claus dress and undress, will descend on the bars of lower New York City and rain down Christmas cheer like spoiled eggnog. This obnoxious event is SantaCon.”
I learned that tens of thousands of people gather in Manhattan every year on SantaCon for a day-long pub crawl to designated bars, many of the Santas eventually ending up in Brooklyn or passed out on a bench somewhere. They gather about ten a.m. near Tompkins Park on the lower East Side to get their secret instructions on the bar crawl route. Many bars in Manhattan last Saturday had signs in the window like this one: “Alcohol Soaked Father Christmas themed flash mob not welcome here. Take your body fluids and public intoxication elsewhere.” Some signs were more succinct: “No Santas allowed.”
The Long Island Rail Road, Metro North and New Jersey Transit all announced that no alcohol consumption would be allowed on their trains for 24 hours, starting at noon on Saturday.
Aware of the growing dislike of SantaCon, the organizers, who refused to give their names to the press, warned participants by internet to tone down their antics this year and remember that unwanted sexual advances on passing females are wrong: “Dirty ol’ Santa or Ho Ho Ho, just remember No Means No.”
The anonymous organizers of the event pointed out to The New York Times that for every bar that doesn’t want Santas, there are many that do. Every establishment on the tour has pledged to donate a percentage of the day’s profits to Toys for Tots, and last year the event raised $45,000. (Participants are encouraged to donate $10 each.) They also said that this year there will be many “helper elves’ assigned to guide Santas who stagger off the designated route.
The first recorded SantaCon in the U.S. United States was in San Francisco in 1994, conceived as a subversive expression of anti-commercialism. Now SantaCon has forgotten about being anti-commercialism. It takes place in more than 300 cities in 44 countries. The biggest gathering is in New York City, which had an estimated 30,000 bad Santas last year.
Around noon I boarded a subway in the East Village to travel to the Upper East Side, because I knew there was little chance of getting a taxi amid the Christmas rush and the snowy weather. I got out at Union Station to transfer to the Lexington line and stared in wonder at all the Santas around me (most of them headed downtown.) There were not just Santas, but elves and reindeer. A group of Santas across the way periodically shouted out “Ho! Ho! Ho!” in unison like cheerleaders, but I didn’t see any signs of misbehavior—perhaps because it was still early in the day. Along with rotund Santas of the male variety, I saw a number of chic-looking female elves in fetching red and white miniskirts and peaked caps.
Perhaps because I didn’t see the Santas later in the day, when their Christmas spirits had overpowered their good sense, my first encounter with SantaCon has left me less outraged than The New York Times and more inclined to agree with the police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, who told the press, “This is an event that we support. It’s what makes New York New York.”