Ask anyone in New York City about SantaCon—trawl through Twitter, quiz your friends—and you’ll find it’s an issue upon which almost everyone agrees: The yearly orgy of Santa-suit clad drunks clogging the city’s bars and streets is the worst manifestation of Christmas spirit ever conceived by humans.
But ask Kris Kringle, one of 25 community organizers behind the annual pub crawl, and he’ll tell you we’ve got it all wrong.
For Kringle, SantaCon is a celebration of creative expression and community; a defiant alternative to the heinous consumerism associated with the holidays; a merry band of costume-obsessed theater types who spread jolly joy throughout the city and donate to charity in the process.
Kringle, 40, has a real name and works for a “media company,” though he declined to specify further and asked that I attribute all quotes to his SantaCon alias.
“SantaCon isn’t about getting drunk and being out of control, but that’s the story the media always runs with because it’s easy,” he told me, determined to set the record straight.
We were at a bar in the East Village where Kringle was distributing festive pins to SantaCon participants who had donated at least $10 to charity.
The pin is a VIP badge of sorts that distinguishes benevolent Santas from the rest of the crowd, which was roughly 13,000-strong last year, allowing them to skip the lines at various bars and clubs in the city.
“Here, watch this,” Kringle mumbled to me as a young, blond woman spotted his Santa hat and approached. He slipped into SantaCon character, praising her for donating to charity and inquiring about her costume. (He stopped short of asking her to sit on his knee.)
Well, her boyfriend was going as The Grinch, she said, so she’d bought yards and yards of green fur yesterday and some ugly Christmas sweaters.
“All the good stuff!” Kringle enthused.
I wondered if the whole thing was staged: here was the wholesome SantaCon spirit that Kringle and other SantaCon organizers have been actively pitching to the press, including The New York Times, as part of a larger effort to rebrand their bad image.
Kringle was upfront about this effort, though he referred to it euphemistically as “getting our message out there—‘rebranding’ just sounds so corporate.”
In the past few years, the media has lavished praise on the Yuletide Bacchanal with stories like “Yes, SantaCon Absolutely Is That Bad,” “12 SantaCon Horror Stories,” and “SantaCon, Explained by Dante’s ‘Inferno’.”
In the bar, Kringle introduced me to another organizer, “Santa Jean,” a zaftig, cheery man who had just walked in with an imposing Santa staff wrapped in cascading twinkle lights.
Kringle was ecstatic: “This is the creativity that I was telling you about!”
Jean, who declined to give his last name, rattled off SantaCon’s Twitter analytics: 57,000 followers, a majority of whom are women and a majority of whom have a salary of $75,000 or higher. In other words: not a demographic of belligerent frat bros, who have become the face of SantaCon in recent years.
Kringle and I headed to Williamsburg, where SantaCon will kick off in McCarren Park at 10 a.m. on Saturday. Starting in Williamsburg seems appropriate, I said, since the hipster mecca feels more like a college campus these days.
“It’s more about changing up the route every year to keep it interesting and exciting,” Kringle told me, adding that SantaCon 2011 started in Williamsburg.
I asked him about Bushwick voting to prevent the scourge of SantaCon from invading the neighborhood last year.
“That was a poorly reported story that everyone ran with,” he said, breaking it down for me. “We reached out to a dozen or so bars and only one said they didn’t want to participate, but the owner spoke to someone on the community board, and that person mounted a campaign against us coming to Bushwick.”
Clearly their reputation had become a hindrance, I noted.
Indeed, it was around this time that the SantaCon organizers hired Norman Siegel, a civil rights lawyer who outlined their First Amendment rights to (responsible) public revelry.
“Elected officials were attempting to ban them from their neighborhoods, and that’s a no-can-do,” Siegel told me in a phone conversation. “This is America, and people have a right to walk on public streets and engage in SantaCon.”
Siegel reviewed the video documentation of Santas behaving badly and encouraged SantaCon’s organizers to ameliorate the debauchery associated with the annual event.
They ramped up social media before and during the event to discourage public lewdness: “Fighting, vandalism, littering, stealing or public urination will SHUT DOWN SANTACON. Don’t be that Santa,” one tweet read.
Siegel boasted that there were “no arrests and no summonses” last year.
This year, Siegel and the SantaCon organizers worked with the Police Department and the Department of Parks and Recreation, which granted them a permit for the event. They also recruited safety volunteers and, at the request of city and state officials, released SantaCon’s route prior to the event.
Back in Williamsburg, Kringle told me he wasn’t happy about this concession—that it “takes a lot of fun and a lot of momentum out of the event.”
He said it incentivizes Santas to be lazy, to secure a seat at one of the designated bars or clubs along the route rather than starting with the rest of the crowd.
“I think it will overwhelm the neighborhoods more. Plus it distracts from the social conditioning we’re trying to do.”
Social conditioning, he explained, involves teaching “uninitiated” Santas how to behave.
Kringle and I approached Viva Toro, one of the venues that houses the “only mechanical bull in Williamsburg,” according to its website, which—come Saturday—dozens of Santas will inevitably attempt to mount all at once.
“At the end of the day, it’s a public event and we have no control over who decides to wear a Santa suit,” Kringle said of Saturday’s revels. “But we’re trying to make it clear what SantaCon’s really about. It’s about celebrating the sacred and the profane at the same time. There’s a lot of symbolism and absurdity surrounding the Christmas season, and SantaCon is just another way of expressing it.”
Tell that to the New Yorkers barricaded in their apartments on Saturday afternoon, then gingerly negotiating the vomit stained-sidewalks on Sunday morning.