It has become one of the indignities of life in New York, like slow-walking, sidewalk-hogging tourists in Times Square, subway lunch-munchers, or the incessant circus whine of the ice cream trunk.
Each Christmas season, hundreds of drunken revelers dressed up as so many Santa Clauses descend on New York in an event known as SantaCon. And we do mean drunken—in the keep your kids at home, pull the shades kind of drunken. Spotted at the annual saturnalia have been drugstore hand jobs Santa slamdowns and of course piles of puke speckled with the stray white beard bits of fake Father Christmas facial hair.
So odious is the Yuletide Bacchanal that Whovilles across the city have united to keep the Santas at bay. First the Lower East Side said to stay away. When the Kringles decided like so many of their bearded brethren to decamp to Brooklyn, the residents of Bushwick, a neighborhood that only a few years ago was one of the most crime-ridden in the city, barred the partiers as well.
This year will represent the 20th anniversary of the first Running of the Santas. It is anniversary that will go largely unacknowledged, like so much else about the history of the event. For SantaCon was not always just for the shit-faced. Or the merely so. The event grew out of an anti-consumerist action by the Danish radical theater collective Solvognen. In 1974, 75 members of the group descended on a Copenhagen department store. They went to the books department, and began taking volumes off the shelves and giving them to customers with a hearty “Merry Christmas.” (For these infractions of the Holiday spirit, they were arrested and in some cases beaten in the street by Copenhagen police.)
Twenty years later, the idea was picked up by the Cacophony Society in San Francisco, a group of urban pranksters who helped launch Burning Man in the Nevada desert. Their focus was less explicitly political and more absurdist.
“The idea was to mess with the concept of Christmas,” recalled John Law, an original Cacophony member. “I was nine when I realized what a bunch of bullshit the whole thing was. They were just lying to you! For me, personally, it was a way to claim the holiday, to take it back from Jesus Christ and from Macy’s and it a party that we all could enjoy.”
So they crashed a debutante ball at the Fairmount Hotel, flooded downtown department stores chanting “Charge it! Charge it,” hung a Santa in effigy from a streetlight, and sang their own NSFW version of Christmas carols. To be fair, the Cacophoners weren’t just feeling the holiday spirit; there were actual spirits involved too. Still, whenever they ran across a kid, Law says, they tried to keep it together, acting in the ho-ho-ho manner of the kind of mall Santas they were familiar with.
Most Cacophony events were one-off affairs, just enough to jam the culture a bit before moving on. Santarchy, as it was called back then, was revived though the next year, when the San Francisco police copped to what they were doing. So the following year dozens of Santas, in full red and white trim, boarded a plane to Portland. The next year was Los Angeles, and then it came east to New York. There they marched in front of the United Nations as representatives of the North Pole, holding signs to stop the Holly-caust, and tried to climb the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge. It was in New York, organizers said, that they received the warmest welcome from police and pub-owners, and so afterwards, decided enough tidings and good cheer were enough.
But it didn’t matter. By that time, SantaCon had already spread beyond the narrow confines of a few prankster-explorers. And the holiday cheer has continued to spread. SantaCon is now in 90 cities around the world. Even New London, Connecticut added its own this year.
But the political or subversive strain is long gone now. Law remembers a few years ago when he opened his front door in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco at 11 o’clock one SantaCon morning only to discover a 20-year-old in a Santa suit vomiting on his doorstep.
He texted one of the other founding Santas, “Fuck you, Santa Rob.”
“What is this payback,” Law asked. “I have very mixed feelings about what the event has become, which is just one big frat party.”
But like flowers that grow in the cracks of a city sidewalk, some of that old rebellious spirit of the SantaCons of yore may at last be returning, because of, not in spite of the opposition against it.
While neighborhood homeowners and businesses tried to keep the mob at bay, the organizers of SantaCon decided this year to keep things low-key, as the kids say, limiting the sleigh ride to a few bars on the Lower East Side and urging Santas to keep their elves off the sidewalk.
But the ice-out has convinced organizers to get serious about their rights as revelers. They hired Norman Siegel, the former head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, who says he has been advising the group on how to turn their merry cheer into a march and a movement.
“I have been advising them on the Do’s and Don’t of the First Amendment. They want to transition what they do into something different,” Siegel said on Wednesday. “We are developing a strategy next year that will permit them to march in the street.”
Siegel said that he would be monitoring this year’s SantaCon—without a Santa suit, although he was offered one—to make sure that the elves were treated fairly. Public transit agencies have already instituted bans on alcohol in light of the event, which Siegel called a violation of the 1st and the 21st Amendments. “People have a right to drink alcohol. You can’t drink it publicly. You can’t be rowdy. But if I have a bottle of Johnnie Walker in my briefcase, that is within my rights.”
And if any police were warning bars against serving the Santas, “that would be improper behavior by a government official.”
“The government can’t censor their message, even if they don’t agree with it. That is well established.”
The vast majority of New Yorkers seem to disagree, wanting the Santas gone for good. As one letter-writer wrote to the New York Times last year, T’was the night before SantaCon/ And through the East Village/The natives were kvetching/'Bout the rape and the pillage
But among those who do not want to see SantaCon fizzle are some of the original Cacophony Society members, despite their regret about what the event has turned into.
“I know everyone hates it, but everyone that hates it probably hasn’t done it,” said Scott Beale, who was in San Francisco in the events earliest days. “New Yorkers just don’t like anything that interrupts their flow.”
John Law agrees.
“I don’t want to be an old fuddy-duddy. These are just kids partying. Who am I to tell them they can’t? If they piss off some hipsters in the Lower East Side, that is funny.”
Still, there will be no comeback for Law.
“No, I have no desire to get inside a vomit-encrusted Santa Suit. I am nearly 60 years old. But it still has the spark of life in it.”