The organizers of SantaCon NYC know their event has an image problem.
And yet despite the bad press, SantaCon NYC returns Saturday, Dec. 10. Tens of thousands of participants will dress like Santa, romping their way through New York City, in a route to be announced this week. Roughly 60 bars and venues have signed on to welcome the mobs.
SantaCon began as a performance art project in the 1990s, poking fun at the consumerism of Christmas, and grew from there. Today there are dozens of SantaCons around the country, and the world, but New York City’s is the biggest.
“Every year we get a lot of press that shines a negative light on SantaCon,” said Shiny Galeani, one of the organizers of the NYC event. “I understand and certainly it'll get more clicks.” But, she said, some of the coverage felt a little unfair, focused on specific incidents from a decade ago.
“People have all kinds of preconceived notions about what we are and why we do it,” Galeani said. “A lot of it stems from bad press that we got a long time ago, and that’s a bummer.”
Perhaps as a result of that infamous reputation, Galeani was joined on the call by a man who would only identify himself as “Santa.” He did not speak during the conversation, except to clarify the amount of money SantaCon NYC had given away to charities: $900,000 since it started running as a 501(c)(3) in 2012.
Galeani and the man who identifies as Santa are part of a four-person team that plans the annual festivities. A big part of her role is helping bar owners prepare for the onslaught — many first-time hosts are surprised by the number of staff members and security they need on the day.
Technically, it’s not a pub crawl: “It's definitely not a pub crawl because there is no order and you don't have to drink.” Many bars, Galeani said, will serve mocktails.
The biggest misunderstanding, of course – the one that goes beyond definitions and logistics – is that folks just don’t get SantaCon.
Like us or not, we come every year, just like Santa.
SantaCon is about “community and absurdity and the holiday spirit,” said Galeani. She marveled at its ability to take over a place as big as New York City with sheer silliness. It is open to everyone.
Galeani first attended the event by herself about 20 years ago, made friends with fellow Santas, and was smitten. She returned year after year, once with homemade songbooks so she and her friends could sing on the subway. Now she describes the day as life-affirming.
It’s not surprising that people who don’t participate in SantaCon have negative perceptions of it. The event has become notable for public drunkenness, urination, defecation and brawling — drawing the ire of the NYPD in years past. Public acts of fornication have thrown the event into further disrepute and last year’s celebration was pegged as a COVID-19 superspreader event.
And while many bars have signed up to participate, others ban the red-hatted revelers from their premises.
But there’s a more pervasive reason why non-Cons pooh-pooh the annual conclave of Kringles, says Dimitris Xygalatas, a professor of anthropology at the University of Connecticut and the author of "Ritual: How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living."
“All kinds of rituals, to outsiders — they look silly, they look pointless, because at their heart they are kind of pointless,” he said. “That's the definition of ritual.” He gave the example of football fans after a winning game, and how their behavior might not make sense to non-fans.
Xygalatas has never attended a SantaCon, but after decades of studying cultural habits, he says the draw of SantaCon is not unlike many other similar traditions. Human beings crave ritual, he said, noting that festivals of wild, drunken partying – including Bacchanalia in ancient Rome – date back millennia.
“Human beings don’t need much of an excuse to engage in rituals,” he added. “So I’m not really surprised that this is happening.”
For a ritual to endure, it needs to engage all the senses, he explained — and in that, SantaCon hits jackpot: It’s loud, it’s colorful, it has food, it has alcohol, it has pageantry and it has loads of people jostling through city streets. Dressing alike can instill a sense of community, even if there isn’t an actual SantaCon community beyond the event.
Galeani knows her event has staying power.
“We've been around for so long,” she said. “Like us or not, we come every year, just like Santa.”
SantaCon happens in New York City on Saturday, Dec. 10. The route is expected to be out by Wednesday. To learn more, visit Santacon.nyc.