What started as a protest against holiday consumerism has turned into a shitshow in a Santa suit.
All photos by the author, unless otherwise stated
John Law has mixed feelings about SantaCon. He told me this over the phone, as I stood in a packed bar on New York's Lower East Side, straining to hear over the crowd of loud, drunken Santas. Nearby, a pair of reindeer vixens were twerking on top of the bar and bleary-eyed bros clad in Santa suits downed Tequila shots. None of these revelers would be taking part in SantaCon if it weren't for the man I was talking to on the phone.
Law was one of the original organizers of SantaCon back in 1994, an event that began as a protest to holiday consumerism.Law stopped participating after 1998. "I haven't put on a vomit-encrusted Santa suit in quite a while. We were just kind of done with it back then," he told me.
Today, SantaCon has become an annual tradition in over 100 cities worldwide. In New York City alone, over 30,000 Santas take to the streets for the annual holiday-themed booze fest. The costumed mob mentality seems to give merrymakers the license to behave badly, as if wearing a Santa suit made you immune to local laws and basic decency. Over the years, it's become commonplace to see shitfaced Santas brawling, vomiting, urinating, and pleasuring each other in public during SantaCon. This year, it wasn't even noon before I spotted Santa pissing on the door of a church in my neighborhood.
"I'm not like them! I'm a real Santa!" — Glen Heroy
But back in 1994, SantaCon was a few dozen people trying to reclaim Christmas. The first event was inspired by a Danish performance and activist group, called Solvognen, which took to the streets of Copenhagen in 1974 with a "Santa army" that would pull antics like giving out items directly off the shelves of department stores as presents to customers.
When Mother Jones published an article on the event, it inspired the San Francisco Cacophony Society—the same group responsible for creating Burning Man—who went on to create their own event: SantaCon.
The plan was to simply do it one time, raising questions about holiday consumerism, just like the Danish group had done. The idea was to take back Christmas from Macy's, Coca Cola, and Jesus.
"We had no intention of creating some giant, stupid wave of marauding crimson that was going to sweep across the planet," said Law. There were 33 Santas at the original event, which felt like the perfect number.
Even though the group was small, the result was shocking. The crowd of Santas literally stopped shoppers in their tracks as they marched through Macy's and started a spontaneous Santa vs. kids snowball fight at a public skating rink.
"It created that momentary mind-fuck of 'What's going on here?'" Law told me. "People's jaws were literally hanging open."
The group wasn't trying to wreak too much havoc, but this wasn't a Hallmark Christmas special either. Law wore a body hardness under his Santa suit so that, at the end of the night, he could be hoisted by the neck to the top of a traffic light—literally, Santa hanged with a noose. "We waited until midnight to do that," Law said. "There weren't any kids on the street when that happened."
It's almost impossible to find the original meaning of SantaCon in the massive, daylong pub-crawl it's become. While the event was designed to criticize consumerism, it's present-day iteration instead creates hostility toward actual Santa impersonators, who have nothing to do with the shitshow of SantaCon.
Glen Heroy, who has worked as a professional Santa for over 30 years, says he directly feels the hostility people have toward SantaCon in New York, even though he dons a Santa suit for the entire holiday season and has nothing to do with the event.
"My Santa rig cost upward of $3,000," Heroy told me. "So when I'm leaving a gig and need to catch a cab to my next gig and it happens to be SantaCon, no cab will stop for me. I find I am a victim of a strange kind of profiling from taxi drivers. And as the tenth vacant cab passes me by, I want to shout: 'I'm not like them! I'm a real Santa!'"
That's not to say that people don't love Santa in New York. "People do stop me on the street though and seem relieved that I'm not a drunk douche bag. Take a selfie. Hand me money!" Heroy added.
"Last SantaCon I had to walk seven blocks just to get a cab. I made $32 on the walk. Almost covered my fare."
Law, however, does not love Santa.
"When I was nine, I realized that Santa Claus was a lie, and it was really hurtful. When you're a kid and you realize that Santa Claus doesn't exist, nobody talks about it, it's the beginning of your indoctrination into middle-class hypocrisy. I didn't like Christmas after that."
But with SantaCon, he had a new reason to celebrate. "We could take it back and make it a fun holiday event instead of a hypocritical excuse for filling the pockets of Macy's. That was part of my motivation because I'm horrified by that commercial hypocrisy and that Jesus Christ myth and all the other bullshit that goes along with it," Law told me. "Doing this event and having that response was a way of going, 'Hey, this is our party. It's our Christmas too.'"
After SantaCon's inaugural year, the group grew to 100 Santas and already, things started to get out of control. Three Santas were arrested. Another group of Santas crashed a debutante ball at San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel, where Law says "Santa Robert swiped a bottle of Sky vodka and drank the whole thing over the course of a half-hour. He ended up projectile vomiting on the bus."
By 1996, when the Cacophony Society brought the event to Portland, SantaCon had gained a bad reputation. The local police were so frazzled at the arrival of multitudinous Santas that they employed hundreds of cops to follow the Santas, who they believed to be a violent threat. Law says they gave out official police memos that read: "Anarchist dressed as Santa will try to trash your businesses this weekend. Please be aware of them."
Even though police unnecessarily donned riot gear, Law advised participants: "You can't get mad at them—you're fucking Santa. You can't get mad and yell 'fuck off cops,' because this is not what that's about and it will totally fuck everything up."
No one ended up getting arrested. Instead, the mass Santas crashed a roller rink and sung Christmas carols at a mall.
Law has mixed feelings about the beast that has evolved to be SantaCon in 2015. One year during SantaCon, he walked out of his San Francisco apartment and nearly tripped over some kid in a Santa suit vigorously vomiting on his steps.
"I felt really bad," he said. "Kind of like 'Fuck! This is what happened?'"
"If the whole idea is just to get shit-faced drunk, and that's all they're doing, then that's kind of dumb. It's kind of boring." — John Law
"We didn't plan this, but it's in some 50 cities. Some of them are probably straight-up frat bro beer fests, and some of them are probably more interesting. Who knows?" he said. "I'm not against it and I'm not for it. I'm ambivalent."
Though it's mostly become a drunken free-for-all, Law can appreciate the anarchy of mass Santas rampaging through a city. "If you want to have a public gathering in a society that is rapidly becoming a police state, there's some power there. There's some value in that." But the flip side, he said, is an event with no thought involved whatsoever.
"I actually wouldn't mind seeing 30,000 Santas—from a distance. Just the image is so overwhelming. I mean, how can that not be amazing?" Law told me. "But beyond that, if the whole idea is just to get shit-faced drunk, and that's all they're doing, then that's kind of dumb. It's kind of boring."
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