Every year, hundreds of fuccbois and basics longing for a shameless seasonal kegger descend onto the streets of New York City in the traditional red hats and robes for a widely despised bar crawl known as SantaCon. The event started in San Francisco in the 90s as a piece of anti-corporate culture jamming performance art. It came to NYC in 1998 and has since dissolved into a reason for finance bros to dress like Saint Nick, get hammered, brawl, piss and vomit on the sidewalks, and maybe get an HJ from a hot elf in a Duane Reade.
This time around, the event fell on the same day as Millions March, a massive protest against police brutality following the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the non-indictments of the officers that killed them. They didn't let that stop them, and being preemptively banned from many Bushwick bars didn't slow them down either. In fact, the event hired a lawyer, Norman Siegel, to defend Santa's First Amendment right to assemble in costume. The organizers also took some steps to combat the bar crawl's bad reputation—to find out the route this year, SantaCon participants had to buy an app that also sent out tweets and texts to remind shitfaced Father Christmases not to get too jolly.
I woke up early on Saturday, the day of SantaCon—evidently not early enough, since Siegel decided to schedule a press conference in Times Square at 9 AM to defend the party. During the conference, Siegel announced that "the police were shaking hands with SantaCon organizers and everyone was smiling and having a good time. The cops were giving us Tootsie rolls." (Siegel is the former head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, by the way; in his career he's both fought for the voting rights of black people in the South and defended the KKK's First Amendment rights.)
On the way to the conference, I met two middle-aged women on the train dressed in full regalia, both of whom introduced themselves as "Santa." In thick Long Island accents, they explained that today's SantaCon was about "spreading Christmas cheer" and letting the police "do whatever they need to do today." We got off the train and one told me, "I have two kids, so this is my Christmas. Better than stuffing batteries into toys on Christmas morning."
I looked out over the sea of red and understood why the police were so friendly. The overwhelming majority of participants appeared to be young, white, and wealthy enough to blow cash on costumes and booze—there weren't going to be "no justice, no peace!" chants coming from them. I spoke with a few boys at the edge of the mass, who told me that due to the protests and the police "not messing around," this year's crowd was substantially smaller than the previous year's—which, New Yorkers will remember, was a notorious drunken disaster.
After about an hour of media photo ops in front of a massive American flag, the throng dispersed into the surrounding neighborhoods. Organizers herded Santas into a number of Kringle-friendly bars and asked them to stay away from venues that didn't want to serve the festive throng. Soon, every single bar in the Midtown area was packed deep with Santas, as lines of impatient bros and broettes formed outside doors. I attached myself to a group of revelers who were chanting "San-ta! San-ta! San-ta!" as we funneled into the bar. It was 11 in the morning.
I immediately figured out that being the only one without a Santa costume meant it would be impossible to get the bartender's attention, and after trying unsuccessfully for a few minutes, I gave up and slumped in a corner. One of the bar owners, figuring me for a reporter or just a guy who chose an unfortunate time to get drunk by himself on a Saturday morning, came up to discuss his thoughts on SantaCon.
"I was reading all the negative press, and they were like, 'It's white privilege.' I think that's such bullshit," he said. "These guys can get arrested too."
After 20 minutes of loitering, I walked outside, where Santas were screaming and stumbling around the sidewalk. Some had lined up around the block to get into the next bar. Through the window I could see things were dissovling into chaos. Hats flew in the air, fists were pumped, bros were pulled into bro hugs. I asked the doorman how many Santas were inside. "Too many," he answered. I decided that there was no way I was going to stand in a line this long. I desperately needed a drink and to pee so I started looking for a less crowded bar.
One of the spots listed in the app was a "cabaret club," which turned out to be a strip club on 33rd Street. Maybe because it was only half past noon, there wasn't much of a Santa presence outside. I headed in with a free entrance coupon I'd found on the street and immediately regretted the idea. Strip clubs freak me out, and they don't get any more comfortable when they're filled with horny drunken Santas. A few of the them—who were reclining with open robes, watching a topless woman gyrate on stage—stared me down as I entered.
I gulped down a whiskey and went to take a piss. As I stood at the urinal, two Santas entered the handicapped stall next to me and began to fuck. A rapid train of red, white, and beige flashed through a crack in the stall. The whole thing felt like a fever nightmare. I squeezed past a large group of scantily-dressed Mrs. Clauses taking selfies and raced out the door. It had only been a few hours since the kickoff of SantaCon and somebody was already puking outside of the club.
I decided to check in on the protests further down south, and hopped on the D train to Washington Square Park. On the platform I asked a guy holding a sign to share his thoughts on SantaCon going on at the same time. "Doesn't bother me," he said. "It's nice to have more bodies for the protest."
The protest felt like an alternate dimension. I'd stepped out of a disorganized, mostly white, fratboy crowd into a diverse, politically focused group. There was a single protester in a Santa outfit, and I went to interview him, but he spoke limited English and couldn't understand my questions.
As the march moved north, isolated packs of Santas began to appear, rapidly scattering behind the police barricade to watch the advancing crowd. I asked a group of three Santas, standing slack-jawed and drunk on the sidewalk, what they thought of the protests. "I don't know. Cool," one said as the angry mass filed past us.
About an hour later, the protest finally crossed 30th Street, the invisible divide separating the southernmost SantaCon bar from lower Manhattan. A single black Santa joined the crowd, walking with his hands up in solidarity. Photographers swarmed him, excited to get their crossover shot of the day.
I left to see how the rest of the Santas were faring. As I walked down Sixth Avenue, it was clear that literally everybody was debilitatingly drunk. The street was full of hundreds of Ashleys, Claires, Brads, and Jakes drinking out of flasks hidden in their red hats and chain smoking. Tourists near the Empire State Building snapped photos. A mother and her young daughter fought their way around a group of drunk Santas blocking the sidewalk, and I heard the mom explain to her kid, "They're idiots. Drunken idiots."
Night fell. There wasn't much more to see besides long lines of belligerent smiling Santas, and no hope of getting a drink without joining their red-and-white ranks. On my way to the train home, a small group of SantaCon protesters passed through, chanting "Hey Hey! Ho Ho! SantaCon has got to go!"
I found myself on a subway about half full of loud, belligerent Saint Nicholases. "I think Hannukah started today!" one yelled. "We need to get off at Delancey and take the 6!" screamed another. Both of them had their facts wrong. By the time I finally got back to Brooklyn, my head was pounding with a sort of monotonous, drunk ho-ho-ho. It had been a real banner day for free speech in Manhattan, between the march and the Santas. I fell asleep imagining a wasted Santa being beaten by the NYPD. I didn't even get drunk.
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