Is SantaCon Really That Bad?

12.17.13 Matt Harvey

Yesterday’s SantaCon recaps, most of which focused on the catchily titled “Santapocalypse” YouTube video of brawling Santas near Union Square, hid a more mundane truth: according to the NYPD’s own stats, the hysteria leading up to the yearly mass meet-up had been a sort of moral panic. The thousands of costumed Santas, elves, Yeti and the like who braved Saturday’s snow and slush to binge-drink in the city’s streets and bars received a sum total of zero arrests.

Not a bad rap sheet for a mass event that a vehement New York Times op-ed described as “a parasite” and local polls labeled an “annual scourge” deserving some sort of outright ban, like indoor smoking and the unlamented squeegee men of Rudy Giuliani’s sterile New York.

But I’m not completely objective anymore. From 10:30am on Saturday — when I donned a $40 Kris Kringle get-up and followed the Santa clones parading down my street chanting “Ho! Ho! Ho!”– until 8pm, I trundled half-freezing around the East Village, visiting one jam-packed bar after another, searching for what lies at the heart of this “annual scourge.”

What I found, while nothing I would probably choose to repeat (I’m not really into any bland conformist mass event spectacles, from tail-gating to music festivals) was pretty tame, even sweet at times. I witnessed nothing more naughty than anonymous make-out sessions and out-of-control drunkenness — the spirit of the thing somewhere between an Elks Convention and a gigantic fraternity romp.

Much more alarming was the attitude of certain city-dwellers, who seem to believe that SantaCon should be exiled out of the city by decree. If nothing else, this alarmist posture speaks to a troubling development in the city’s mass consciousness, an urge to de-legitimize (even criminalize) any activity it finds mildly offensive. Occupy Wall Street? A new homeless shelter? The presence of a full-service hospital in what well-heeled West Villagers have come to see as their high-rent enclave? Whatever the potential annoyance is, as long as it lies beyond a narrow set of upper-middle class norms (except for big development projects like luxury high-rises that never seem to run into more than token opposition) the answer is predictable: Not in our back yard.

Unlike most of the controversies and turf battles that serve as outlets for NIMBY rage, hatred towards Santacon has the added virtue of being cool and PC at the same time. Yuppies and hip crowds both share snobbery against middle-class “bridge-and-tunnel” mall-oriented values. But given the fact that these days downtown is filled with chain stores and college bars, is there any wonder that suburban young people find our streets inviting?

The idea that SantaCon is some sort of officially sanctioned extravaganza, like St. Patrick’s Day, is a fiction. Theoretically, there is a “route,” but no one I spoke to knew it, much less tried to follow it. “It’s kind of make your own party, isn’t it?” said Louisa Parker, in town from England with her friend and now scrunched into the corner of Company, a sports bar on E. 10th St– already past capacity just around 11am. Which begs the question: is it even constitutional to outlaw the public assembly of people just because they wear festive apparel, drink loudly and have a penchant for sports bars?

“New Yorkers are just so nice and friendly, aren’t they?” Parker added, “Everyone smiles at you. We just had to be a part of it.” Whether she spoke ironically was masked by her accent, but most local residents I encountered throughout the day — trapped in my Santa guise — weren’t reciprocating the warmth.

At around noon, coming out of the alcove entrance of a 2nd Avenue house party with a post-collegiate Santa to smoke a cigarette, we attracted an NYU film crew looking to film us while we underwent their version of a “field sobriety test.” After several minutes of gamely going through their hoops and answering snarky questions while touching our fingers to our noses, we told them to shove their expensive camera equipment up their asses and walked away.

Hours later, well past 6pm as the festivities were still going strong, an attractive Irishwoman carrying a bag of groceries down 2nd Avenue noticed in the darkness that my costume’s flimsy, too-loose plastic belt had slipped to the sidewalk. Before I registered that it was missing, she had snatched it up and was rushing towards me from behind waving it like a red flag. “Is this where you put your garbage?” she asked.

A bit confused, perhaps thinking she was reacting to me in civvies, I replied “Why, do you want it?”

That really set her off. “What kind of New Yorker are you? This is litter, it’s disgusting!” She knew the enemy, and he was a faceless drunk in a red velveteen suit. Right now it was me. Annoyed, I told her that I was the kind of New Yorker who was at least born here and that if she hated litter that much she should probably go back to England, or wherever the hell she comes from.

“You lot disgust me!” she cried back. “And I’m not English!”

Some SantaCon critics rose above mere yuppie whining. For more than fifteen minutes around 5pm this Saturday evening on lower Second Avenue, three Latino teens from the nabe stood winging cups of snow at the line of young and youngish SantaCon revelers — who were all waiting to be let into the jam-packed Jack Dempsey’s bar. “Fuck you fake-ass Santas,” jeered the crew’s leader as he unleashed another round of snow at the crow.

An easy target with my notebook and pen out, I took a full cupful in the face, while scribbling that the lined-up Santas took the fusillade with remarkable grace, responding only with louder cries for the bouncer to let us in. Maybe it was just because we were freezing and a little drunk. Or maybe it was the Christmas spirit, which even young bridge-and-tunnel folks — stuck within a monotonous consumerist culture — still pine for. Then again, fighting back was an attitude proscribed by SantaCon’s rulebook, along with “don’t fuck with the NYPD,” and “don’t fuck with NYC” and “don’t fuck with kids.”

So, for the most part, it appears that SantaCon is just a huge winter Happy Hour with costumes and an unusual alibi for excessive consumption of alcohol.

On 2nd Avenue and 11th St. Meghan Russo, a good-natured, 23-year-old SUNY grad, hosted some “pre-game drinking.” Her apartment, which she’s been sharing with two other women for two months now, quickly filled up with her old high school friends, who had taken the 9:30 LIRR in from Huntington Station. “I just love the East Village,” said Russo. “Isn’t it the best neighborhood?”

Top 40 was on rotation on the tube, and the standard line among guests as to why they were braving the bad weather was “meeting up with friends and having a good time.” One guest, who would only give his name as Nick, translated: “SantaCon is about getting really fucked up.”

The men drank cans of Bud Light—and shots of Jack Daniels from mini Bally jars — while the women stuck to champagne and Skyy Vodka. Shortly after 1pm, Rich Gray, who was in from Huntington with three male friends, estimated their collective tally at 5 beers, 4 shots. “Not including what we drank on the train,” added Gray, laughing.

While Gray and his LI crew (one of whom is openly and comfortably gay) represent the dominant SantaCon ethos, there were also unapologetic bros from other states and continents, families, artsy Santas, and cute local single women in all matter of partial Christmas dress.

Joe Bawiec, a burly man in his early 50s, wearing a Santa suit with a sticker that admonished “Puke Responsibly,” had come in with his wife and two single daughters from Delaware. He had rented hotel rooms for the night. “We just couldn’t resist the idea of seeing 20,000 Santas in one place,” he enthused. “It’s so great.” Asked about the criticisms that had dogged the occasion, he said he didn’t understand the fuss. “If nothing else it’s great for the bars, and it’s only one day a year.”

Much later that night, the back room of Jack Dempsey’s bar was serving as HQ for hipper, more urban revelers. The costumes were more diverse (less obviously last-minute purchases) and there was a fairly palpable desire to arrest the clock inexorably ticking into adulthood by recapturing some traditional Christmas magic.

Or just holiday magic, for that matter. Smiling, one woman revealed a “Hanukah Santa” tattoo on her inner forearm. A man wearing a biker-style black denim vest with a patch reading “Santas of Anarchy” (a play on TV’s “Sons of Anarchy”), who gave his name as Jax Teller, said, “Isn’t that awesome? We’re pretty intense here.”

Adam, dressed in a specially embroidered snug-fitting red sweatshirt, said he has been involved with some version of SantaCon since he was in college ten years ago. I asked him if he ever felt old talking to some of the younger elves now. “Oh sure,” he said, shaking his head. “I’m thirty and this might be my last year. It’s been a lot of fun, but it can’t go on forever.”

A few feet away a twenty-something elf was flitting about in candy-striped pajamas, and, Adam watching her for a moment, added: “Maybe another year, who knows.”

(Photo: Vitaliy Piltser)