For John Law, December 19, 1998, was the night that saved Christmas.
The young San Franciscan strapped on a fake white beard, donned a $12 red suit, and led 200 Santas as they went caroling up Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. During their joyful march uptown, throngs of bustling New Yorkers and tourists paused to gawk at the sea of red felt and velour. A police officer yelled, “Hey, Santa! Can you get me a date with Cindy Crawford?” A starry-eyed couple asked Law to pose for a photo with their baby.
The posse of Santas passed the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center and squeezed their way into the Plaza Hotel lobby before security guards approached and shooed them on their way. Then they wandered into Central Park, where they scaled some of the exposed bedrock formations that pock the grounds before ascending a hill and arriving at a frozen-over pond. Hundreds of ice skaters stared back at them.
“Merry Christmas!” the marauding Santas yelled in unison. The skaters burst into cheers.
“I almost started crying,” Law recalls of that moment 16 years ago. “I stopped hating Christmas then.”
Law had despised the holiday ever since age nine, when he was confronted with the devastating truth that ol’ St. Nick was but a myth.
“That was the beginning of my existential life,” says Law, now 56. “I thought Christmas was baloney and everything we’re told is a lie. All the companies are just trying to sell you stuff.”
But on that cold evening in the park, Law felt the “power of the Christmas symbol.”
“People just want to feel warm and fuzzy,” he says. “They want to join together.”
That was New York City’s introduction to SantaCon — a performance-art experiment that Law and some friends had devised four years earlier in San Francisco. It was originally intended “to make whimsical fun of the holiday,” Law says. He imagined it as a surrealist satire of the commercialization of Christmas. In 1994, its first year, 34 participants in Santa suits had marched through the streets of the Golden Gate City, crashing elite parties and looking for ways to, as Law describes it, “shock people and put them into a different reality.”
SantaCon was never supposed to be a recurring event. But there it was a year later, this time with 100 San Francisco revelers dressed in the fuzzy red suits. And it’s done nothing but continue to grow. And grow. Cities across the country and all over the world have held SantaCon events, with New York City’s being the biggest by far — an estimated 30,000 Santas participated last year.
Over the years, Law’s tiny, spontaneous movement has evolved into something he never anticipated — and not just in terms of proliferation. Somewhere along the line, SantaCon turned into a day-long spectacle of public inebriation somewhere between a low-rent Mardi Gras and a drunken fraternity party.
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In the early 2000s, sporadic groups of Santas began popping into bars and diners as they made their way through the streets of New York. But in the last decade, critics say, SantaCon has become a massive hedonistic crawl. Now thousands of sloshed Kris Kringles, elves, and snowmen gather at a single meeting place at 10 a.m. on a designated day in December and stagger from bar to bar, covering the streets and sidewalks with vomit and garbage while antagonizing passersby, brawling with one another, and creating both traffic and pedestrian congestion. In 2013 the NYPD deployed extra police officers to the event’s adopted home and staging ground in the East Village. And this year community leaders, residents, and business owners in Bushwick banded together to block SantaCon altogether when organizers announced plans to move the event across the East River.
As for the man who started it all, stories of SantaCon’s growing infamy leave him wistful for its humble beginnings. “We had no intent to make it a giant event,” Law says of the shocking evolution of his once unassuming creation. “Now most people who started it don’t want to be blamed for it.”
Mike Ireland knows SantaCon. And when he learned the annual holiday bar crawl was eyeing Bushwick, he wanted no part of it. As a longtime bartender in the East Village, Ireland is a veteran of many SantaCons past. He says that over the years he’s watched drunken, raging Santas urinate on walls, sexually harass women, break into fights, and annoy pretty much everyone in their path.
“I was terrified and angry,” Ireland says of his reaction to learning in November that SantaCon organizers had more or less been chased out of the East Village and were interested in taking the party to Bushwick. He’s seated on a bench inside Three Diamond Door, the cavernous Bushwick bar he now owns. “SantaCon is like the worst Saturday night times 30,000. You have thousands of people dumped onto the neighborhood — they come in, wreck it, and leave…It’s comparable to a bad frat party.”
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He decided to enlist the help of other nearby bar owners to try and block the event’s entry into their community. He sent a text message warning them that SantaCon would be trouble for the neighborhood — and instantly, he says, they all agreed to boycott the event, vowing to refuse any patrons dressed as Santa on December 13, this year’s SantaCon D-Day. They then took their pledge to Brooklyn’s Community Board 4, which serves Bushwick.
They didn’t know it at the time, but Ireland and his band of bar owners had unofficially initiated a massive anti-SantaCon movement that would eventually force organizers back to the drawing board to find their new home. A petition was circulated, bar owners made banners that read “No Santas,” and even City Councilmember Rafael Espinal got involved, throwing his full support behind keeping the besotted holiday festival out of the neighborhood.
One group launched a “Boycott SantaCon” website, Twitter page, and email campaign, entreating bar owners to “prohibit from your bar anyone dressed as Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus, sexy Claus, elves, sexy elves, reindeer, sexy reindeer, snowmen, sexy snowmen, candy canes, sexy candy canes, Krampus, sexy Krampus, or any other holiday-themed costume or sexy variant of that costume.
“Just say no to this monstrosity,” the email concluded. “Bushwick does not need a pool of talking sewage slithering through our streets.”
When the community board convened for its regular November meeting, it flat-out rejected SantaCon as its first order of business. The campaign had succeeded. SantaCon was out.
“If you’re a five-year-old kid,” Ireland says, “the last thing you want to see is one Santa Claus beating up another Santa Claus or Santa lying in his own vomit holding a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. If I saw that, I’d be like, ‘Santa is dead.’ ” He notes that organizers had planned to start the day in Maria Hernandez Park — Bushwick’s only real green space and community playground.
Espinal tells the Voice that he later spoke with an event organizer calling himself “Santa,” who told him they would spare Bushwick from “Santification.”
“He politely and respectfully agreed that Bushwick cannot accommodate an event of this magnitude and was going to take his sleigh elsewhere,” Espinal says. “It is one of the best Christmas gifts that Santa delivered to the Bushwick community.”
Bushwick has had its share of tension between longtime residents and the young, artistic, hipster set that has descended on the community as they’ve been priced out of nearby gentrified strongholds Williamsburg and Greenpoint. But Espinal says the push to cut SantaCon off at the knees touchingly united the disparate groups.
“There was a sense of accomplishment,” says Betsy Maher, owner of Pearl’s Social Club and an opponent of SantaCon’s plans to come to Bushwick. “It doesn’t matter — new or old, people in Bushwick care about each other.”
Maher, who likewise opened her bar after working in the East Village, says problems with SantaCon in that community began when its demographics changed. As rents rose in the early to mid 2000s, artists relocated to Brooklyn and wealthier, more entitled young professionals moved in and started taking part in the annual ritual.
“It wasn’t until the Lower East Side started getting bro-y that it got bad,” she says. “As the city is slowly drained of the artistic experience, that’s replaced by money. The people who go to SantaCon go to the bars where I used to work. They treat you like you’re their slave and if you don’t do what they want that’s your fault.”
Despite organizers’ stated commitment to steering clear of Bushwick, bar owners are employing extra bouncers to guard their establishments on the day of the event — just in case any SantaCon aspirants who didn’t get the memo try to slink through the doors. And many bars, like Three Diamond Door, will still hang their brightly painted banners warning “No Santas Allowed.”
When Law and his friends started SantaCon in 1994, they saw it as nothing more than a prank designed to “take Christmas back from consumerists.” The trio were members of the Cacophony Society, which defined itself as a “randomly gathered network of individuals united in the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society, through subversion, pranks, art, fringe exploration, and meaningless madness.” They held garage sales to raise money and organized free events. They even started a ritual of burning a wood figure on San Francisco’s Baker Beach — an echo of the custom at Burning Man, in whose creation members of the Cacophony Society were also involved.
For SantaCon, the group was inspired by a 1988 article in Mother Jones magazine about a Danish political theater troupe whose members had dressed up as Santa Claus and crashed a department store, handing books on the shelves to children. The store managers called in police, who arrested the Santas and took back the gifts.
“Suddenly masses of police arrive, and haul the generous Santas out onto the street. There, the red-suited people are roughed up, searched and thrown into paddy wagons,” the article says of the incident, which occurred in Copenhagen in 1974. “Watching bystanders are horrified. Children become hysterical.”
One of the Danish activists said the arrest was part of the group’s political statement:
“We showed the cultural significance of crime,” the activist told the Mother Jones reporter. “If you’re going to be honest and generous, you have to be a criminal.”
Law says that SantaCon — “-con” was added because of its connotative association with pranks and trickery — was not expressly political. It was more of a surrealist parody left open to individual interpretation — and it was only planned to happen once.
“Although the early event wasn’t just a mindless pub crawl — anything but, really — it also wasn’t a deadly serious political action like the Danish group,” Law says. “We were a pretty playful crew — I was only one of the organizers, and my disdain for Christmas was not really shared by the others. The idea was to make whimsical fun of the holiday — not to be mean-spirited.”
Law’s role model Gary Warne — the founder of the Cacophony Society’s predecessor, called the “Suicide Club” — had first conceived the idea, but died before he could ever stage his first event.
“Gary was so full of new ideas that he was nearly exploding. For him, the Santa thing was just one more media blip that piqued his curiosity and seemed like a good idea for an event,” Law recalls. “He was always surveying the media, as well as pulp fiction, movies, adventure novels, and historical texts, for ideas to extrapolate upon for some kind of profound or — just as often — wacky event idea.”
The inaugural SantaCon was a small gathering of sober Santa impersonators who met in a plaza by the Ferry Building in a pristine San Francisco waterfront neighborhood at 6 p.m. They first made their way to a Macy’s department store and later crashed a debutante ball at the posh Fairmont Hotel. One of the Santas, a “pickup horn player at fancy gigs,” knew a back corridor, and so led the group into the Venetian Room. It was, Law recalls, “a pleasant experience.”
“We were dancing with the girls’ grandmothers — the people thought we were part of the entertainment. They cheered as we kept rolling through the door — it was like clowns coming out of a van in a continuous stream — surreal,” says Law. “People applauded when we left.”
The group then rode on cable cars and sang carols, but visited few bars, as it was not viewed as a drinking occasion.
“I remember no one being drunk at all,” Law says.
The evening culminated with a midnight Santa “hanging,” as Law — in full St. Nick regalia — jumped from the scaffolding of a San Francisco hotel wearing a giant harness. But virtually no one witnessed the act, if for no other reason than no one knew it was happening.
“It was a very simple joke, making fun of Christmas,” he says.
The next year SantaCon grew from 34 to 100 revelers, all of whom chased Law to his second hanging. They pretended to be a Santa Claus union that was on strike. Law played the role of a Santa who had crossed the picket line. “Kill the scab!” one boisterous Santa boomed, and they hanged him from a street lamp on Market Street.
“This is why the collective mind is so brilliant — we hadn’t planned that, it just happened,” Law recalls, noting that this time, his stunt drew a crowd of onlookers. That second year there was more drinking than there had been at the inaugural event, but most Santas were still “stone-cold sober,” Law says.
By 1996, SantaCon’s third year, word had started to get out about the eccentric group of playful Santas, and a group in Portland, Oregon, wooed Law and his flock up north. It moved again, to Los Angeles, the following year. It finally landed in New York in 1998. Artist Julia Solis helped organize the first New York event — which would be Law’s last — but soon the celebration changed leadership hands again, and became an event held in multiple cities at once, each with its own organizers. Meanwhile the number of Santas continued to multiply each year, and, by 2013, SantaCon was held in almost 90 cities, and in more than a dozen countries.
“Once the internet picked this meme up it went global, and it went way beyond the Cacophony Society,” says Law. “I’m sure it’s different in every city — in some you have giant, muscly frat boys beating up grandmas, and others — nice Santas.”
But it was in New York where the event began to take a decidedly boozy turn.
In the early 2000s, groups of tipsy Santas might appear at one bar or another, says Pete Saverino — owner of the Thirsty Scholar, a dimly lit basement bar on Second Avenue. But by mid-decade, SantaCon had noticeably begun to take on the form of a traditional drunken bar crawl — and it has continued to grow every year.
“It’s a mix of anonymity from the costumes and people blowing stress off from the holiday season — it’s got the same feeling as St. Patrick’s Day,” Saverino says. “It’s a big day. We just have to plan accordingly, bring in extra security and bartenders. But it did get out of hand last year — Santas were blocking off the street on Second Avenue. It needs to be organized better.”
In 2009, organizers added a charity component to the event. Participants were asked to donate $10 each, and bars that sign up to be listed on SantaCon’s official map of “sponsor” businesses give part of their profits to a local charity. According to SantaCon New York’s website, $60,000 was raised last year for Food Bank for New York and other New York City charities. But as the event grew, the Santas would more or less take over all of the East Village — visiting bars that had no affiliation with SantaCon whatsoever, angering patrons of those establishments who had no interest in being caught up in the debauchery.
In 2013, the NYPD started asking bars to refuse participation in SantaCon. Lieutenant John Cocchi wrote a letter asking bar owners to reject Santas for their “urinating, littering, vomiting, and vandalizing,” the New York Daily News reported last November. An op-ed in the New York Times begged the city to “bring drunken Santas under control.” Anti-SantaCon sentiment has reached such a fever pitch that even the website Gothamist, which has taken frequent jabs at the event, wrote a piece in November wondering if the hatred has gotten out of hand.
“This virulent opposition to what amounts to a rowdy bar crawl has become so reactionary that it’s making us a little uneasy,” the piece reasoned. “As New Yorkers, shouldn’t we be a little more blasé about this? After all, we live in a cosmopolitan city that makes room for (or at least tolerates) a highly disruptive marathon, innumerable raucous street parades, thunderous fireworks, subway parties, inebriated zombies, and groups of teenagers. It’s true that SantaCon is increasingly dominated by a boorish fratastic element, but don’t frat brothers and sisters have rights too?”
But the criticism just keeps on coming.
Doug Bunton, owner of Grassroots Tavern on St. Marks Place, says he allowed Santas into his bar one time and quickly vowed never to do so again.
“A guy poked me with a candy cane and said, ‘Santa doesn’t pay,’ and from then on I make no exceptions. I think their purpose is to take over the bar and make you do what they want,” Bunton asserts. “I think they should try doing it in the Bronx, and see what they get there.”
SantaCon has become so despised that even some bar owners who have hosted the event in the past are afraid to advocate for the celebration for fear of being abandoned by their regular customers who strongly oppose it.
“It’s a fun event — but it seems like the whole city hates it,” says the owner of a popular East Village bar, speaking on the condition of anonymity (he has many anti-SantaCon patrons). “I don’t understand why it gets such a bad rap.”
And the manager of a one-year-old bar and restaurant on Second Avenue who also declines to be named tells the Voice that participating in SantaCon last year prompted far more headaches than prosperity. He’d signed up as a host to help his new business, but quickly received a threatening anonymous email warning that the neighborhood would snub his establishment if he took part in SantaCon. As it turned out, the bar owner says, the revelers caused only minor nuisances — a broken toilet, some shattered Christmas lights, and a mess equivalent to “a bad version of a bad St. Patrick’s Day” — though he too vowed not to sponsor SantaCon this year if it did return.
“I’m hoping they go to another neighborhood, so I don’t have to deal with that problem,” he says. “We don’t want to be associated with it.”
SantaCon’s New York organizer, the one who gives his name only as “Santa,” feels SantaCon is merely misunderstood. He says outsiders are uncomfortable with such an unconventional and creative celebration. He insists the event is not a bar crawl, but rather an excuse to dress up, go caroling, and spread holiday cheer.
“It draws criticism very easily from people because it’s rare to see so much unbridled joy and optimism outside,” the man called Santa tells the Voice. He has been involved in organizing the event the past eight years. He declined to give his real name because, he said, there was no “figurehead” to SantaCon. “Everyone can be Santa. It’s a philosophical stance for this event.”
He says even he had no idea the event would get as big as it did, while conceding that there are some participants who “act inappropriately.”
“We don’t condone that,” he says. “We don’t condone irresponsible or rude behavior. That’s always an unwanted element of the event that gives SantaCon a bad rap.”
He also admits that SantaCon has attracted a certain “fratty” element, but is adamant that now, 20 years on, SantaCon has the same spirit as when it started.
“It’s about celebrating the holiday in a creative and joyful way, to really gift the true meaning of the Holy Spirit. It’s not about consumerism, it’s about making new friends and donning gay apparel.”
And if parents worry about their children seeing drunken, boorish Santas stumbling through the streets?
“Why is that parent lying to their kid about Santa?” he snaps. “What I mean is, what difference does it make to see a person drinking in jeans or in a Santa suit?”
He won’t say where SantaCon will be held this year but insists plans are going forward to stage the event in a new neighborhood that will be announced on the morning of December 13.
Somehow, there are still some who hope that the announcement will signal SantaCon’s return to the East Village.
“Why not join the whole Santa crew? Santa isn’t just an old guy. Santa is young and fun,” says Rex Francis, manager of the East Village’s Bar None, a frequent sponsor of SantaCon celebrations. “Santa can do a split,” Francis exults, recalling the jolly St. Nick who showed off flexibility tricks last year.
“You’ve got black Santas, Irish Santas, it’s very diverse…and did I mention the revenue was great?”
George Carpenter, a bartender at The Belfry in the East Village, says he even requested to work during SantaCon this Saturday, because this “main event of the year for bartenders” gets him “pumped up for the holiday season.” Carpenter says he made double the tips on SantaCon days that he did most shifts.
“It’s a good holiday activity for staff, because everybody comes together to work. Some of the customers are a little challenging, but it’s worth it,” he says. “People go crazy but in a fun way.”
Twenty years after unleashing the SantaCon beast on the world, Law scoffs at the “stupid and fucked-up” Santas who have tainted his creation. He tells a story of walking out his door one December Saturday a few years ago and seeing an 18-year-old Santa vomiting on his stoop.
“I thought it was some kind of cosmic payback,” Law says. “I was annoyed by SantaCon like everyone else.”
But Law says he’s made peace with the idea that his two-decade-old invention has come to represent humankind’s fundamental “need to party.”
“Looking at it now, as an old guy, I realized there’s a thread that runs through this rampant collective spasm of partying and Dionysian excess,” Law says. “People need to get together and celebrate in an uncontrolled way — that’s why it’s so popular.”
The SantaCon partiers may include bros, frat boys, and underage suburbanites, but perhaps that’s all the more reason to defend the infamous ritual, Law challenges.
“Who’s it annoying? The hipsters in the cool neighborhoods,” Law says. “Well, fuck the hipsters. Kids are coming to your neighborhood for one day — so what? Suck it up.”