SantaCon: Is Xmas the new Halloween? The hidden history of a Burning Man brother

December 16th, 2010 by Andrzej

A friend of mine came over last week and said she didn’t realise that Christmas had become the new Halloween. When I asked what she meant she explained she’d been wandering through the city earlier that day when she’d come across the several thousand New Yorkers taking part in this years SantaCon. What she didn’t know is that this has now become a worldwide phenomenon.

SantaCon NYC 2010 © Andrzej Liguz/ Not to be used without permission.

SantaCon is happening this December at over 179 locations across 24 countries. More than 13,000 Santa's set a Guinness world record in Ireland on December 9th 2007 and in excess of 70,000 Santa's took over Moscow in 2006, but it seems the Guinness people weren't there so it didn't count. With strict orders to tip their bartenders well, several thousand New York Santa's met last Saturday morning near Central Park and proceeded to wander through the city (on this bar crawl that refuses to be called a bar crawl) for the rest of the day having a ton of fun and causing mass mayhem in the process.

I caught up with them in the late afternoon in the West Village where it was obvious a few of the Santa’s were feeling somewhat 'tired and emotional' after too much liquid refreshment. But most of them were in fine fettle and full of good cheer. I spent an hour catching up with people and taking pictures and had to leave just as the police were moving in to start handing out tickets and moving people on. They were not as cheerful as the Santa's they had to deal with and planned to have the streets cleared by 7pm, when the next batch of tourists were due to show up.

SantaCon NYC 2010 © Andrzej Liguz/ Not to be used without permission.

Like Burning Man, SantaCon originated in San Francisco. The first one took place in 1994 and was sponsored by The SF Cacophony Society, who were also responsible for moving Burning Man from San Francisco to the Nevada Desert in 1990.

The original inspiration came from an earlier SF adventure club called The Suicide Club, who were best known for creating public pranks in the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s. Particular favorites were Clowns on the Bus (dozens of seemingly unrelated clowns going to work, all waiting at succeeding bus stops on a commute morning) and The Mud People (which was reprised with great success on Rodeo Drive by L.A. Cacophony in 1994) They were also known for climbing major suspension bridges, holding costumed events in cemeteries, abandoned breweries and sewers and for infiltrating cults such as the Moonies and the American Nazi Party.

SantaCon NYC 2010 © Andrzej Liguz/ Not to be used without permission.

The Founder of The Suicide Club (Gary Warne) decided to organize Santarchy as a non-political, surrealist Santa prank event after reading an article about a Danish political group who dressed as Santa’s and mobbed a Copenhagen Dept. store just before Christmas.

Gary’s unfortunate death and the subsequent demise of the Suicide Club (temporarily) put paid to this potential Yule-time tradition. Gary’s idea was brought back to life many years later in 1994 by the Cacophony Society, which included many members of the (by now defunct) Suicide Club. The original idea was to play with the archetypal image of Santa by using a multitude of Santa’s to induce a surreal reaction from the public while the Santa’s had a real adventure and a lot of fun while hamming it up at various downtown Christmas locations.

SantaCon NYC 2010 © Andrzej Liguz/ Not to be used without permission.

Another group which seems to have influenced by this well of weirdness would have to be Improve Everywhere, who were started in August 2001 by Charlie Todd in NYC and are known for genius pranks such as Frozen Grand Central.

SantaCon NYC 2008 © Andrzej Liguz/ Not to be used without permission.

The first SantaCon was unbridled success. Known as the Cheap Suit Santa’s Prank, they started in the children’s playland of the Emporium Department Store where 30 jolly Santa’s rode Ferris Wheel and scared the children before moving onto Union Square, where they hung one of their number by the neck (but not really) from a lamp post. Which freaked out even more kids. And a bunch of adults.

Mooning their way up Nob Hill out of a cable car, they crashed a ‘society’ dinner-dance at the Fairmont Hotel where they helped themselves to other people’s drinks and caused general mayhem. Guests thought it was part of the entertainment, but hotel security weren’t happy so they tried to escape by moving on to the Tonga Room but found themselves getting ejected as lounge band played ‘Here Comes Santa Claus’.

SantaCon NYC 2008 © Andrzej Liguz/ Not to be used without permission.

The following year there were people who thought the first year had been so good it could never be surpassed. Obviously they were outvoted because here we are 16 years later and there are now thousands of people all over the world getting dressed up and hanging out with their friends in red. Lots will be happening this coming weekend. Keep an eye out for rampant Santa's in your city.

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