A man dressed as the Grinch was sprawled out on the ground, a friend cradling him like Mary holding Jesus. His friends were dressed in red, the cops were dressed in blue, and the vomit he was producing was spectacular. It was 1pm at SantaCon 2022.
I was watching the action from the safety of a Paris Baguette, enjoying a mushroom quiche and a delightful tiramisu portion. What alerted me to the fallen Santa were two photographers, racing from the cafe, who threw their cameras toward the drunk Grinch while his friends shoo-ed them away. The villains today weren’t the overserved, their enablers, or the police, but the paparazzi.
My photographer and friend for the day was Brittany, who sported a green turtleneck under a stringy, red dress. She was taking a bathroom break with me in the cafe since we’d been drinking since 10am. In many ways, she was the sole reason I was at SantaCon. It was my idea and I asked her to go, but I wouldn’t have gone if she hadn’t said yes the night before. I’ve found on my quest to fall back in love with New York that it’s more fun to do these tourist attractions with a friend, especially when the primary activity is alcoholic.
Weeks before, I had a short call with an organizer of SantaCon NYC, who referred to himself as “Santa.”
“We get plenty of bad press. We donate a lot to charity, but all you hear about is a girl who lost her shoe. It’s not anything different than what happens every night, we’re just doing it in the day.”
He was surprisingly grumpy for someone who signed off his emails “Hohoho.” I could understand why he might have a chip on his shoulder. SantaCon, a global Santa-themed bar crawl in its 23rd year in New York, is known to non-participants as something of a nightmare before Christmas. I’d only heard of SantaCon in the same sentence as, “Please for the love of God, avoid SantaCon.” Friends warned me and it started trending on social media the day before like an incoming apocalypse, but I still had to experience it first-hand: an event that brings people to town from across the globe … or just across a bridge or tunnel.
The morning of, I raced to CVS to don my Santa apparel. Thirty bucks got me a hat with elf ears and an attached white mustache and beard, a plaid tartan Santa Hat, some small stockings, and some “texting” gloves (I think the fabric is so thin that your phone detects finger). Santa slippers caught my eye, too, but I wasn’t ready to commit to footwear. I wanted a costume I could turn on and off, a disguise I could disguise, to opt-in and opt-out of being a Santa.
A cloud of pot awaited me at the top of the subway stairs at 40th and Broadway, the meet-up location announced a few days prior on a cute map with the participating midtown bars, East Village bars, and cookie shops. A bus painted with a SantaCon mural was parked on the square, with 10 or so revelers dancing on top, dressed like background characters from Oz. A full-body suit abominable snowman was climbing up the bus, his headpiece removed for climbing safety.
“We’ve been ho-ho-ho-ing for 21 years,” a man on top of the bus yelled into a microphone. “New York City knows how to Ho! Ho! Ho! Ho!” The mileage the M.C. got out of the “Ho!” pun was enough to make you wonder if he’d traveled back in time himself to lay the double-entendre’s linguistic foundation.
Like Moses, he stood before a sea of red: hats, coats, and suits adorning at least 500 Santas. There was a spectrum of quality to the costumes: some red fabric so thin it looked like cobwebs, others so luxurious I was worried about impending damage. Not all attendees were Santas: there were some elves, some Christmas monsters, Grinches, one friend group was a Santa with a four-person security detail in dress suits with holiday cartoons, another Santa was only in briefs, which given the chilly temperature, also described his remaining time on Earth.
“Some people don’t understand the Big Red Man,” the MC continued in a deep, gravely baritone, his windpipe a soot-covered chimney. “They get claustrophobic. Claustrophobic. Claus…trophobic.” It took everyone a minute.
He reviewed the five F’s with the crowd of things to not “freak” with today: kids, cops, bar staff, NYC, and charity. Charity stuck out as a positive–the group has donated over $1 million dollars–but I’m sure Enron supported a little league or two. The list of things not to do felt like a list of things people had done.
For now, the event had a festive air: an inflatable limbo game, live singing (with plenty of Mariah), jump rope. Men with signs roamed the crowd—one with corporate interests (“ParentPresents.com”) and another with corporal interests (“FREE HUGS”). But it also had the air of an infantry being riled up before battle. If you looked closely, you saw the munitions: an empty airplane bottle of Fireball tossed discretely in a trash can, illicit liquids poured from a sac into a Starbucks cup. A friend said covering SantaCon must be like being a war correspondent. Another said falling in love with New York by going to SantaCon would be like trying to fall back in love with your spouse by watching them take a shit.
The MC introduced Jack Ass Frost (or was it Jack Off Frost?), a person dressed in blue and white with long white, frosted hair pulled back to a point.
“He gives gifts. And he gives gifts hard! Hard! Hard!” the MC explained.
“We’re looking for the best costumes,” Frost yelled. “The best dancers. The sexiest elves. The prettiest Santas.” Jack Ass had $50 Amazon gift certificates to give out, and people were paying half-attention.
“You rolled your eyes at me!” a lady with a snowflake glued to her face yelled to her partner.
“It’s the magical time of year when everybody hates New York,” someone behind me said.
The hour-ish of programming by the bus concluded and Santa puppets led marches to a variety of large clubs. The day drinking was to begin.
“You didn’t tell me the line was three fucking days,” a man with a British accent said.
The line was long, so other members of the long line admired the Margaritaville resort across the street. (“That has chairs and kids so I like that.”) Another felt bad for tourists who were just exploring Times Square. (“You got people on vacation and us degenerates.)
The organizers eventually came over and said there were no lines at other clubs.
As promised, Brittany and I got into Beer Factory with ease, where I ordered us two whiskey sodas, which defaulted to triples, and two Fireball shots (when in Rome). We managed to find a table, and I found an outlet. (My phone was already only at 9%. Perhaps it had been day drinking too.) The tables around us were filled with Santas, mostly groups of friends, one couple who didn’t speak to anyone. The patrons lip-synced to Mariah and gently swayed. The activities happening at straight and queer bars might be more similar than I had always thought.
Over the loud music, Brittany and I just caught up: about our lives, what we were witnessing, discussions of race and gender at SantaCon, Santas as a persecuted class, the fascinating social dynamics of early 20-somethings and the doe-eyed nature, like baby reindeer, with which they look around at a beer-soaked bar.
I thought there’d be a healthy amount of inter-Santa group mixing, but factions seemed to keep to themselves. The ladies next to my charging phone looked on with horror when I came to retrieve it. I was a Santa, but I was a stranger. The only person that spoke to us was a woman who told Brittany that the corset strings to her festive red dress were falling apart. She didn’t help repair them, and when I went to help, I understood why. The surgery required was more involved than I realized, and this surgeon had been drinking.
We decided to head to a second location despite having everything we needed. It’s not a bar hop or crawl if all you do is sit. Along the way, I did a costume change: from plaid hat to elf hat with the beard that covered most of me. I wasn’t serving body, so I needed to serve face. A few people in a line greeted this costume with revelry, like children delighting at step one of peekaboo.
At Playwrights, it was less SantaCon and more World Cup. Many there were dressed festively, but plenty of plainclothes Santas-at-heart were staring at TV screens of the game between France and England.
“Fuck the colonizers!” a Santa screamed after France scored.
“They’re both colonizers,” a friend said.
A young lady approached an older woman at the bar and they transferred lip gloss via kiss. It was kind of hot until I eventually realized they were mother and daughter.
I pimped Brittany into talking to some strangers—a confidence I lacked despite Fireball, whiskey, and now wine.
“How do you keep your hat up?” she asked a Santa with a particularly tall, pointy Santa hat.
“The magic of Christmas,” he could have said, or “Viagra.” Instead, all he could only muster was “I don’t know.” He seemed to become self-conscious about it, and when I looked later, he had tied his pointy hat down with his Santa beard.
Everyone was quite young, faces untouched by the permanent marker lines Time draws on you while you’re sleeping, and quite well-behaved. Brittany and I couldn’t believe the day was going so pleasantly. I wondered if we were doing it wrong. Should I kick a baby or pee on a protected landmark? We were certainly doing it our way: just the two of us and not a group of 20 with plenty of sitting and bathroom breaks. If we immigrated to the land of SantaCon, we would never be elected to office, but I don’t think we would be exiled.
We called it quits around 5pm, a healthy SantaCon shift, and one that might have saved us from the late-night debauchery of Santas working (and drinking) doubles. My friend told me horror stories of SantaCon from his time in Manhattan: were those about people who kept drinking? Or about people 10 years ago? Is everyone on the nice list these days? For me, it was an entirely pleasant day, playing tourist to my twenties and watching groups of friends dressed in silly outfits, drinking, and helping make sure the drunk Grinch got safely to the Whospital (sorry).
“The day felt epic,” Brittany told me. I guess when you’re drinking, standing and waiting can be a kind of an adventure.
“Do you love New York?” I asked her.
“I love New York deeply and I love it every day,” she said without hesitation.
She ducked into a souvenir shop and bought an “I ♥ NY” crop top. I looked at some of the souvenir mugs, one of which read, “Friends are family you choose. – Unknown.”
On our walk to the train, she explained her love more: how she loves big, cold, lonely cities, and that Sinatra’s idea of making it here—which she is—makes her so proud to be a part of it. While she waxed poetic about the city, a woman dressed in Santa gear with bright red lipstick stumbled by and let out a long, primal, guttural yell/exhale. It was an “AAAAAAAH” with so many As to make for a very cost-efficient purchase on Wheel of Fortune. This Santa’s scream blended with Brittany’s musings, and part of me thought that in their own languages, they were saying the same thing.
Zach Zimmerman is a queer comedian, writer, and author of Time Out New York’s “Pretend I’m A Tourist” column. A regular at the Comedy Cellar, Zach has appeared on The Late Late Show with James Corden and had a debut album “Clean Comedy” debut on the Billboard Top 10. Zach’s writing has been published in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, and The Washington Post; and Zach’s first book Is It Hot in Here? (Or Am I Suffering for All Eternity for the Sins I Committed on Earth?) (April 2023) is available for pre-order now.
Ex-Brit turned Manhattan resident since 2008.