A December 2014 cover story in the Village Voice recounted how SantaCon had evolved from "joyful performance art" that originated in San Francisco to a "reviled bar crawl" of drunken brawling, vandalism, public urination and disorder in New York City and elsewhere, resulting in fierce community resistance and disavowals from the originators of the event.
SantaCon began in San Francisco in 1994, inspired by a Mother Jones article on the Danish activist theatre group Solvognen. In 1974, the group gathered dozens of "Santas" in Copenhagen to hand out items from the shelves of a department store to customers as “presents” before they were arrested. Staged by a local prankster group, the Cacophony Society, that had grown out of the earlier Suicide Club, as street theater, the aim was to make fun of Christmas and the rampant consumerism associated with the holiday. Originally called Santarchy and influenced by the surrealist movement, Discordianism, and other subversive art currents, it was not intended to be a recurrent event.
SantaCon came to Portland in 1996 to Seattle in 1997, and to Los Angeles and New York in 1998, when a "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," to the delight of passersby. It has since evolved and spread to 44 countries around the world, with varying versions and interpretations. Events for 2013 were scheduled in 300 cities, including New York City, London, Vancouver, Belfast, and Moscow. The New York SantaCon is the largest, with an estimated 30,000 people participating in 2012. Other events were much smaller and more subdued, with 30 participating in Spokane, Washington.
It has been variously also known as Santarchy, Santa Rampage, the Red Menace, and Santapalooza.
New York City
In New York City, by far the largest SantaCon venue, the event has been criticized for widespread drunkenness and sporadic violence. At a 2011 community board meeting in lower Manhattan, residents complained that their neighborhood had been "terrorized" by SantaCon participants. In an article on the 2011 SantaCon, Gothamist called SantaCon an "annual drunken shitshow" that "has steadily devolved from cleverly subversive to barely tolerable to 'time to lock yourself in your apartment for the day.' " The New York Daily News reported in 2017 that the event "endures an annual backlash from New Yorkers repulsed by the sight of Santas vomiting or urinating in the street in years past."
During the New York City SantaCon in 2012, participants "left a trail of trouble" through Hell's Kitchen, midtown Manhattan, the East Village, and Williamsburg. Residents complained revelers vomited and urinated in the street and fought with each other. In New York City, one source of tension with residents was that most of the revelers come to the event from outside the city.
Official organizers in 2013 described it as “a nonsensical Santa Claus convention that happens once a year for absolutely no reason”, saying on their website that $60,000 was raised that year for New York charities, and that participants donated about 6,850 pounds of canned food to City Harvest. That year, The New York Times described the event as "a daylong bar crawl that begins with good cheer and, for many, inevitably ends in a blurry, booze-soaked haze."
Drunken behavior in 2013 disrupted parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn, and led to calls for the event to be ended and for participant misbehavior to be curbed. The event is monitored and supported by the New York City Police Department. But community opposition has increased, as SantaCon evolved into what The Village Voice described as "a day-long spectacle of public inebriation somewhere between a low-rent Mardi Gras and a drunken fraternity party."
An op-ed in The New York Times on the eve of the 2013 SantaCon criticized it for "sexism, drunkenness, xenophobia, homophobia and enough incidents of public vomiting and urination to fill an infinite dunk tank," and said it "contributes absolutely zero value – cultural, artistic, aesthetic, diversionary, culinary or political – to its host neighborhood. Quite simply, SantaCon is a parasite."
Business Insider called the 2013 event a "dreaded annual event where frat house expats" wreak havoc on the city "dressed as the jolly holiday icon." A NYPD lieutenant in Hell’s Kitchen sent an open letter to local taverns in 2013 which said, “Having thousands of intoxicated partygoers roam the streets urinating, littering, vomiting and vandalizing will not be tolerated in our neighborhood.” On the Lower East Side of Manhattan, residents posted notices telling SantaCon participants to stay away, saying “Alcohol Soaked Father Christmas-themed flash mob not welcome here. Take your body fluids and public intoxication elsewhere.” The Los Angeles Times reported that "some see [SantaCon] as a way for people who live in the suburbs to come to the city and ruin the weekend."
Prior to the 2013 SantaCon, city authorities demanded advance notice of the route of the pub crawl. The event was diverted from the Lower East Side and Midtown Manhattan because of complaints by residents, but went through East Village and parts of Brooklyn as originally planned. During the 2013 SantaCon in New York City, the Long Island Rail Road, Metro-North Railroad and New Jersey Transit banned alcohol consumption on their trains for 24 hours. The 2013 SantaCon was more subdued than previous ones not only due to the alcohol ban on trains, but also an increased police presence, poor weather, and advance coordination with authorities.
A SantaCon organizer said that the group was "very aware of the backlash" and has sought to curb participant misconduct by the use of "helper elves" along the SantaCon route. There were no arrests at the 2013 SantaCon in New York City, and far fewer summonses issued. A beefed-up police presence and poor weather were credited with the decrease. Complaints of crowds and public drunkenness continued, and "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 2014, community leaders in Bushwick, Brooklyn banded together to block SantaCon when organizers announced their intent to move the event to that neighborhood. Rafael Espinal, Jr., the city councilman representing Bushwick, urged bars to refrain from participating in the event. A "boycott SantaCon" website was launched by other opponents, and bars said that they would refuse entry to SantaCon participants. The New York City Parks Department refused to issue a permit for use of a local park, leading organizers to cancel plans to have SantaCon in Bushwick.
After the withdrawal from Bushwick, and opposition from the community board representing the Lower East Side and Hell's Kitchen, the 2014 event was rescheduled for December 13 for 32 bars in Midtown Manhattan. Event organizers hired Norman Siegel, a civil rights attorney, to defend their rights to express themselves "within the parameters of the First Amendment." The 2014 SantaCon coincided with demonstrations in Manhattan against police brutality sparked by the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases.
Police arrested five participants and handed out 100 summonses during the 2015 Santacon, which took place on Dec. 12. The summonses were for offenses that included carrying an open container, disorderly conduct and public urination. One participant was arrested for assault, one for possession of a weapon and three with drug possession.
In anticipation of the 2016 Santacon, scheduled for Dec. 10, Metro-North Railroad banned alcohol on trains and stations. The event was scheduled to take place in Midtown Manhattan, the East Village and Flatiron. A hundred summonses were handed out by police but there were no arrests. The New York Daily News reported that the pub crawl left "a trail of vomit and destruction throughout the East Village" and that one bar was robbed and vandalized by SantaCon participants.
In Portland, Oregon, the 2014 SantaCon was organized by the Cacophony Society, which had originated SantaCon in the city, and sought to recapture event's roots. The Oregonian commented that "while the massively popular New York Santacon made its own bold statement about First Amendment rights Saturday, the Portland Santacon's statement went back to the charmingly subversive attitude that started it all."
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