A gaggle of press gathers in Times Square a little after 9 a.m. for the first-ever SantaCon press conference, which is being held to address a growing sentiment that there are too many peeing, puking, and sexually explicit Santas in New York at the annual December event. Organizers are ready to put a good face, or at least beard, on this thing.
“We are all Santa today, even the elves,” says a man who asks I call him Santa. He’s wearing an ash-colored beard and carrying a cane shaped like a camel leg and toe. (For clarity, we’ll call him Santa One.) He insists, despite the bad press, SantaCon is still about culture-jamming the Christmas season. “When a beautiful, family-friendly holiday turns into running each other over on Black Friday, it is time to make some fun of it,” he says.
It also isn’t about alcohol, he argues. “This isn’t really a top-down event,” Santa One says. “This is an event where different people run it every year. All they really do is run a website and a Facebook page. It is really not about getting drunk to the point where you are not a positive member of the community.”
I point out that we will spend the next nine hours hopping between bars. “In the participatory arts community, [drinking] is just one of the things we do,” he says. “Sometimes at our parties, we forget to drink. It is actually the boring parties where people have to line up the shots because there is nothing else to do. Unfortunately, people who go to those boring parties also come here, and we all wish they didn’t come to this event.”
As I talk to Santa One, a man wearing a tattered Santa costume and carrying a giant plastic fish lets out a series of high-pitched screams, as if he is being stabbed in the leg. The man is fine. He appears to be local to Times Square and unaffiliated with the SantaCon community, but the news cameras still roll.
“We in the participatory arts community apologize to anyone who has had a bad experience with someone dressed in Santa garb,” he says. “We are just trying to educate people. The first time you go to Burning Man, you don’t know what you’re doing. But the second or third time, you’re leaving no trace, and you’re with the program. This is the same thing.”
To manage their image this year SantaCon organizers hired famed civil-rights attorney Norman Siegel, whose past clients include members of the original civil-rights movement, Occupy Wall Street, and, most recently, the nurse placed under Ebola quarantine in New Jersey. “Bushwick supposedly banned them from coming to their neighborhoods,” Siegel told Daily Intelligencer in an interview Friday. “This is America — you can’t ban people from walking on a public street.”
On Friday morning, Siegel facilitated a meeting between NYPD brass and SantaCon organizers — a first. Organizers chose Times Square as a central meeting place, because police said it wouldn’t conflict with the Eric Garner protests. They gave participants a list of two dozen bars where they would be welcome, mostly in midtown (the cops were given the list in advance). The hope is to establish trust with the police, and the community, so that in 2015 the Santas can roam the streets and gather in the parks.
“We hope to make it into a more traditional kind of First Amendment event in the future,” Siegel said. “We don’t condone the urinating.”
I cover two high-quality, New York City parties a week for work — celebrities, free booze, appetizing canapés. Full disclosure: I was wary of spending a Saturday with a crowed of 15,000 dressed in fake plastic fur, pleather boots, and elf ears. But I was assigned the story with one direction: embed.
And so, on Saturday, I woke up at 7:45 a.m. to see if SantaCon 2014 could be done right. To my complete surprise, I discovered it could.
9:31 a.m.: Arrive in Times Square. Unlike years past, the Santas are starting at a single location, rather than two in Brooklyn and Manhattan.
10:21 a.m.: The crowd slowly swells. It is bitterly cold. I chat with folks in from New Jersey. They recommend I buy a badge for $10 that will get me into the VIP parties, and suggest I take out lots of cash for speed at the bars.
10:48 a.m.: @Santacon tweets, "Santas on the move! Leave time square. Don’t leave any Santa trash behind. http://Nowmap.com for venues. #dontscroogeSantacon"
10:59 a.m.: I spot a crushed beer can and an unopened bottle of cider on the ground. One Santa is sipping from a flask, and a few others are drinking from tallboys in paper bags. I look at the list of bars shared by the organizers, but still don’t know where to go. I join a group trailing a saxophone and trombone player playing Christmas carols. A man in a Justin Bieber Santa hat gives me a Galliano chocolate with liqueur inside. I turn back and he is walking with two Spanish-speaking women, one on each arm. We arrive at Slake, a nightclub turned SantaCon home base.*
11:26 a.m.: I talk to two middle-aged women who are SantaCon alumni and return annually because they just really love Christmas and “spreading holiday cheer.” One of the women is dressed as Ms. Claus and looking for a bathroom. “I like being able to celebrate Christmas out loud for one day a year, there has been a lot of dumbing that down lately,” says the other women, who won’t give her name. “I just like to be able to say Merry Christmas to everyone and hand out Christmas canes to the kids.”
11:52 a.m.: Inside Slake I find a velvet rope blocking off an area where arty, creative types with elaborate costumes are hanging out. I meet a Santa — we’ll call him Santa Two — who developed the new SantaCon app and manages the SantaCon website. I tell him I’m press, he’s skeptical, and we talk off the record. I had imagined the SantaCon organizers as rouge frat boys. But the organizers and core group of SantaConers I meet remind me of Burning Man. These are the folks you’d find at New Orleans’s St. Ann’s parade during Mardi Gras — crafty, wacky, a little sexual but in a gender-neutral, gay-friendly way. The desire to hold SantaCon in Bushwick suddenly makes sense.
12:24 p.m.: My friend Katie arrives. She’s recently moved to New York from D.C., so she only partially realizes that an invitation to SantaCon isn’t the most coveted in town. But she knows what to do: She gives me a beer. Meanwhile, there is a karaoke contest onstage, and Caitlin from Manorville, Long Island, is celebrating her 21st birthday and is kissed by a balding elf. Turning around, we meet Jennifer, a transgender woman who is looking for a remote to turn on the lights that she has sewn into her silver lamé skater skirt. We discover that the real VIPs — like Jennifer — get an orange “art star” wrist band. While were talking an older Santa with gold face paint slaps a sticker on my arm that reads, “Handjobs in designated areas only,” and keeps walking.
1:01 p.m.: @Santacon tweets, “Fighting, vandalism, littering, stealing or public urination will SHUT DOWN SANTACON. Don’t be that Santa. #dontscroogeSantacon”
1:09 p.m.: The crowd at Slake starts to break up, and we walk down West 30th toward the next bar. Twelve Latin women from Colombia and Ecuador are singing “Feliz Navidad.” A man dressed as Jesus passes by, and the women start singing “Happy Birthday.” “I think this is a time just to be together,” says Karen. She lives in Bensonhurst, where she is a manager at a MetroPCS store, and hasn’t heard anything about the SantaCon backlash. “You go bar hopping so you know everyone is drinking, but you got to be responsible.” As we walk down the street, she offers a sip of aguardiente, the tequila-like, anise-flavored Columbian national liquor. “It will get you warm,” she promises. “If you drink a lot it will get you fucked up, too.” Like any good bar crawl, we’re not sure where we’re going, but we have faith if we follow the women with the leather bag of Colombian liquor we will eventually arrive at our destination.
1:33 p.m.: We arrive at 230 Fifth Avenue, a rooftop bar with panoramic views. The badges that we paid $10 in Times Square let us skip the line. We run into Jennifer again, and she gives my friend Katie some blotting paper, because Jennifer says Katie’s face looks shiny. The crowd is surprisingly diverse — people of color, old women, old men, and, yes, frat boys. There are also hot dogs. The venue is enormous, the kind that could host a wedding reception or bar mitzvah. There is a mastery of the bathroom doors that rivals the air traffic control tower at LaGuardia on Monday mornings. I meet a twentysomething tech entrepreneur who is using a roll of wrapping paper as a “glow stick.” He is developing an app called Sip that will allow you to order drinks from your phone, so you will never have to wait for a beer again. Eyeing the current line at the bar, I suggest he consider surge pricing.
2:44 p.m.: I meet Don and Beverly: He works at a prison, and she runs BYOB painting class. Beverly tells me she just saw her first puking Santa. She and her husband, Don, took the bus in from Pennsylvania for the day. “We’ll go back at 8 p.m., pass out, be asleep until midnight, and be home,” she explains. Beverly’s hair is painted red and green, and Don, who was stationed in Hawaii while in the Navy, is dressed as a tropical Santa. “I think you should just take an appetizer and not do the whole dinner,” Beverly says. “We’re here for a limited amount of time, we don’t get drunk, and throwing up — maybe because we’re a little bit older. All the youngsters have to party their ass off because they’re young and stupid.”
3:01 p.m.: @Santacon tweets, “If Santa’s getting sloppy, it may be time for a break or a snack. Santa loves milk & cookies! #dontscroogeSantacon”
4:05 p.m.: We stop, get coffee, money, and go to the bathroom. The Eric Garner protest passes by, with demonstrators yelling, “Don’t shoot.” I feel like a jerk for being involved with SantaCon. We spot Jennifer, age 50, in the crowd, dressed in a Santa suit. (This is a different Jennifer than we met earlier.) She’s a DOE employee, originally from Trinidad and Tobago, and has joined the march. “I can participate in both,” she says. “I have affiliation with each because I understand what the marchers are going through. At the same time, I want to have a drink or two and celebrate. My sister is here on vacation and I just wanted to show her a little piece of New York and some of the things we do in New York. I just came out of a bar, and I saw them and I decided to join them walking down the street.” She plans to keep walking with the protestors for a while.
5:00 p.m.: @Santacon tweets, “Want there to be a Santacon in 2015? Then don’t be THAT SANTA in 2014. #dontscroogeSantacon”
5:06 p.m.: We just miss The Daily Show, which was filming at American Whiskey, so we talk to some dudes who said they were turned away from a bar near Grand Central. “We just wanted a beer,” says Austin who is in town from Rye. “But a guy in a suit came up and said, ‘No, you guys can’t come in.’” They say they weren’t even dressed in full regalia and were sober. The bar managers I spoke with say they had to perform a tough calculus of making money during a Saturday dead zone and not turning away long-term clients.
5:28 p.m.: “A lot of people don’t want SantaCon in their establishments,” says American Whiskey general manager Frank Torres. “We didn’t expect this much of a turnout. We are probably doing three times the sales we would do on a normal Saturday without any parties. Our staff kind of hates it right now because they have to deal with drunk people in Santa outfits, but they are going to be happy when they count their tips.” He says he’ll participate again but will call for more security, and more bartenders, although things weren’t as bad as he imagined they would be. “We expected ten people would puke today. So far we’ve only had one. But those are the ones that have been discovered.” (The normal Saturday afternoon puke estimate at American Whiskey is zero.)
5:40 p.m.: @Santacon tweets, “Eggnog and sleighs don’t mix. Use code SANTACON14 for $10 off your 1st @Lyft ride, and they will kick $5 to charity! http://lyft.com”
5:49 p.m.: Partiers across the bar are behaving as if the entire bar were draped in mistletoe. A woman who is part of a nine-woman team dressed as cups of Swiss Miss is canoodling with a man in an ugly sweater. On the dance floor, I talk to Michael who is making out with his girlfriend. “We’ve been drinking since the morning,” Michael says. He works at Morgan Stanley. “We started at nine, my fraternity brothers had a pregame in the Financial District, and we pregamed downtown and we came up here. There were a lot of Santa suits, a lot of beer cans, and handles of Fireball. Then we went to Times Square. We’ve been on the same block since but at a couple of different bars. I’m going to go home and change in an hour and then go back out.”
5:52 p.m.: American Whiskey shuts down their official SantaCon event and tells guests they are closing for a private party. Leaving the bar we run into Santa Two. We offer to wait in line, but he begrudgingly takes us into the after-party.
6:16 p.m.: @Santacon tweets, “Santacon is officially over. Bars have had enough of you. Head on home or if you have a badge head to the after party at Red Room 251 W. 30”
6:21 p.m.: I meet a young woman named Ekoko who has come to SantaCon from the Eric Garner protest. She’s bundled in a black jacket and carrying a sign that says “racism is a deadly force.” “I thought the protest was powerful, but I’m honestly not sure how it affected the general population,” she says. “If you’ve been following all the murders of innocent black men that were unarmed, then of course it is a rallying cry.” She came to the bar to meet up with a friend. “One of my best friends for ten years is here, and when she told me she was by herself, I felt like, per the saying ‘Black lives matter,” at the end of the day, one of my best friends is here by herself and I’m not going to leave my best friend hanging.” She’s not bothered by the fact SantaCon was held on the same day as the Eric Garner protest. “Not everyone is a protester, and I’m okay with that. If people want to come here and celebrate fake Christmas and have their drinks they have the right to do that. That’s what the First Amendment is about, everybody having the right to organize, in the way they see fit, and not being prosecuted by the police for their activities.”
7:08 p.m.: Santa Two agrees to speak on the record and declares the day a success. “The event has been scaled back as a result of the tension in the city, as a result of the organized protests,” he says. “We’ve had a positive event, we’ve had positive interactions with the NYPD and community boards, and we honestly don’t think it could have gone any better. We understand that during any event of this magnitude there are going to be bad actors, thankfully at this event we have not seen anything that would be considered untoward or having a negative impact on the community.”
7:18 p.m.: My friend Katie is propositioned by a bearded man. “I’ll make out with you for as long as you want,” he says. “Please just make my friend get off the stripper pole. Please just make him stop.” She declines the offer. We get burgers and go home.
SantaCon by the Numbers, for Two People
Alcoholic chocolates: 1
Money spent on Santa garb: $64
Hot dogs: 4
Shots of Colombian liquor : 2
Bathrooms broken into: 4
Beers: 8 plus, 1 tallboy
*The original version of this article mistakenly referred to the nightclub Slake as a gay strip club.