From Protest to Puke: The Debasement of SantaCon
For those who don’t participate, SantaCon is an annual spectacle, mildly disorienting and mostly foul. If you’ve ever seen a cluster of self-saboteurs in Santa costumes collectively heaving over a gutter or stumbling about in a daze, you’ve likely been privy to the awe-inspiring merriment of SantaCon.
As a writer who moonlights as a barback, I was warned by seasoned bartenders:
Your SantaCon shift is the only mandatory shift of the year. We’ll need all hands on deck. This is gonna get ugly.
My shift started at 11 AM last Saturday, December 11. Listless bartenders nursed coffees, steeling themselves for the onslaught of Santa spawn. We didn’t have long to wait. All too soon, the revelers in red began lurching into the bar in groups of fours and fives. Those in the seasonal spirit ordered shots of Rumplemintz (100 proof peppermint liqueur). Others swung around buckets of Bud or seltzers. All sought the same destination: Wasted.
Before 5 PM, I discovered that one of the metal soap dispensers had been torn clean off the wall, spilling a pool of silver sap across the bathroom floor. I was thankful it wasn’t vomit. As a barback, I was advised to do regular rounds of the bar, making sure nobody was completely limp. Thankfully there was no need for any ambulance calls during my shift, and the bacchanal raged on. Santa was soused, and had no interest in sobering anytime soon.
This may shock you, but SantaCon wasn’t always so debased. Despite its popularity among those who engage in Greek life beyond their college years, it was once the anti-establishment plaything of artists and anarchists.
In 1974, a Danish guerrilla theater troupe known as Solvognen organized a series of protest theatre events in Copenhagen. Seventy-five men and women dressed as Santa Claus gathered in department stores, protesting the capitalistic greed they believed had corrupted Christmas. Solvognen Santas passed out free coffee and gifts, sang carols about the greed they observed, and protested economic inequality. When they began swiping books to offer to passersby, they were pulled from the stores and beaten by police officers.
In 1977, Mother Jones Magazine covered the Solvognen affair in an article titled, “Santa Gets Busted in Copenhagen.” This article found its way into the hands of Gary Warne, founder of the San Francisco Suicide Club, a secret society known for its urban exploration and anarchic pranks. Warne suggested the group replicate the Santa storm in San Francisco, but his idea didn’t get much traction. Santa was silenced.
Nearly two decades later, the idea emerged again in San Francisco within the Cacophony Society, a “randomly gathered network of individuals” who claimed to be “united in the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society through subversion, pranks, art, fringe explorations and meaningless madness.” According to The Bold Italic, Cacophony Society member Rob Schmitt organized the first SantaCon in 1994. At that time, the event was known as “Santarchy,” and its debut involved thirty-eight rogue Santas on a bus, making uninvited appearances at corporate holiday parties across the city.
Among these merry pranksters was John Law, co-founder of Burning Man and integral member of both the Cacophony Society and San Francisco Suicide Club. Law took the Santarchy spectacle to new heights when he pretended to publicly hang himself using a body harness.
Since that fateful day in 1994, the Santarchy has spread like plague, rearing its barf-bespeckled beard in countries across the globe, including Iceland, Japan, and Uganda. (Check out the full SantaCon 2021 location list here.)
Of course, in its ubiquity, SantaCon has lost its original vision, its subversive imagination.
And so we return to the image of alcohol poisoning and soap dispenser destruction.
To be fair, SantaCon organizers have made an effort to stamp out the hard drinking element. The official SantaCon website features an image that reads: “Drunk Santas not welcome,” and states, “Santa being drunk/disorderly in public isn’t fun for anyone and will get you into trouble.”
However, the website also states, “Santa loves the media but doesn’t really have anything to say.” That’s right, folks. The rich history of Solvognen’s anti-capitalist protest and the Cacophony Society’s merrymaking has officially been scrubbed from the bill. There is no meaning here. Santa is proud of his vacuousness.
So, you may be wondering, Why do it? Why participate in this?
Thankfully, SantaCon.info offers us all a response:
“Because it’s fun. That is all. It’s one of the few chances left for adults to be silly without any kind of agenda.”
Well, well, well.
To those adults who have devised other outlets for being “silly without any kind of agenda,” I applaud you. But please, watch where you step this week. The aftermath of SantaCon’s “silly” remains.