Since at least as far back as 1974, large mobs of revelers in Santa Claus costumes have swarmed public places around the world on a mission to drink booze, sing out of tune, and generally freak out the squares. Our contemporary SantaCon, which this publication has grown increasingly intolerant of, has its roots in San Fransisco's "Cacophony Society," which organized the first "Santarchy" in 1994. The inaugural event, which drew several dozen Santas, began humbly with one Santa in a body harness simulating a fatal hanging from a traffic light. (Laughing Squid's Scott Beale was there and took this iconic photo.)
Fast forward 18 years, and SantaCon as we know it is projectile vomiting into your toddler's stroller. This year, on a dare from Gothamist publisher Jake Dobkin, I obtained a Santa costume and embedded myself in the beer belly of the beast in an attempt to witness the depravity from the inside. It wasn't an entirely foreign experience for me, having served two terms as Santa Claus at Sak's Fifth Avenue in the tail end of the Giuliani administration. (The high point, if you could call it that, was encountering Mayor Rudy himself on the fifth floor and telling him he'd been "a very naughty boy.")
I arrived at Bryant Park just before 2 p.m. to rendezvous with photographer Katie Sokoler, who decided to dress as a "Sassy Elf" despite being groped while shooting last year's SantaCon. Small clusters of boisterous Santas, elves, penguins, trees and gingerbread were milling about here and there, most of them far from the morass of intoxication that we commonly associate with SantaCon. To be sure, some participants were well on their way—one Santa flipped off a group of children who waved at him from a Starbucks window. A glassy-eyed young woman sitting with Santas outside the main branch of the NYPL said she hated me because I wasn't from the Bronx and wore a gold watch (for the record, it's a Casio purchased at a stoop sale for $5).
But none of the famous massive Santa flash mobs appeared before my wondering eyes. At Grand Central, we waited in vain for a critical mass of Santas to build up. "Where are all the Santas?" a young couple wondered. They were dressed as civilians but had brought their toddler in a Santa costume in hopes "blowing his mind" with a flash mob like the one we spotted last year in the Grand Concourse. The answer to their disappointed question was downtown, where we finally found the main nerve of fratastic douchebaggery outside the Village Pourhouse, at approximately 4 p.m.
Bros pounded Jäger while sitting on the hoods of parked cars; others chugged beer while waiting on long lines to enter various bars serving SantaCon drink specials. Groups of women in cheap, disintegrating costumes clung to each other while stumbling along the sidewalk; other Santas sat on the concrete outside Pommes Frites devouring french fries. On Third Avenue and 12th Street, a man dressed as a gingerbread cookie sprinted through traffic playing chicken with cab drivers. If not for the costumes, the scene wasn't much different from any other stupid Saturday night in the East Village. It just got to stupid earlier.
Being dressed as Santa made it somewhat easier to study Santas' behavior and talk to participants, but what was there to really talk about? "Your beard looks like white pubes," one Santa declared before hoisting his right palm for my five millionth high five of the day. "Can I lean on you for a minute?" asked one wasted young woman, who then proceeded to tear off my last remaining fake white eyebrow and stagger away. Another Santa sent an empty vodka bottle shattering onto the sidewalk. Drunk People Rude: News at Eleven.
Despite a number of violent threats made against me for daring to criticize the SantaCon tradition, the "fratwa" issued against me by some participants went unheeded. To be fair, there was a good cross-section of cheerful, well-behaved participants who at least put some creativity into their costumes. And I suspect there may have been a smaller turnout this year, possibly because the festivities kicked off less than 24 hours after one of the worst school shootings in history. Never have I felt less inclined to get dressed up in a costume and pretend to be cheerful than I did Saturday morning. But, as I said, my boss dared me.
In the end, I slipped away from the inanity at 6 p.m., sober as a deacon and before Santas laid siege to Williamsburg, the final "zone" on their hit list. It goes without saying that their boorishness would increase exponentially as the night wore on. But at least by that point there are fewer children in the streets to be traumatized by the bad Santas. Ultimately, SantaCon wasn't quite as irritating as I expected—let's face it, parts of the East Village and Williamsburg are always overrun by frat boy tools and B&T d-bags on the weekend. This is the world we live in now, and one could argue that at least SantaCon requires them to make a slight effort. And while there's plenty of obnoxious SantaCon behavior on the subway, I must report that these exuberant guys eventually made everyone smile and sing along to Christmas carols, even a balding grinch:
And in response to recent criticism about some SantaCon participants' lewd behavior, NYC organizers issued this statement:
Santacon: It's Not Just Bros Puking in Your Neighborhood! Santa Claus isn't just a menace to all that is good and holy: he also brings presents! On Saturday, sixty venues who participated in NYC Santacon donated a portion of the day's proceeds to the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation: as of right now, they've reported $20,000, with a projected total of $45,000.
All Santacon participants were asked to bring two cans of food to support local food banks. Santas donated 6,850 lbs of canned food at the event's starting point, which City Harvest is distributing. Twenty-two venues also collected canned food from Santas, the total weight of which will be available soon.
(Thanks to Party City for generously providing the costumes for journalism.)