While Ashley Cabrera of Harlem knew she wanted to celebrate her 21st birthday in a memorable way, she said she would “never ever imagined” that that way would involve her wearing a Santa suit in the middle of Times Square.
Cabrera is one of several thousand people who participated in this year’s SantaCon on Dec. 12. The event is an annual convention and bar crawl celebrating all things Santa. Started in San Francisco in 1994, the December event has spread to 355 cities and 49 countries in its 21-year history. Participants are expected to dress as Santa, and take part in all-day revelry. In New York City’s edition of the event, Santas donate to a charity of the event organizers’ choice in order to receive a badge that unlocks specials on food or drinks at select venues.
Thousands of Santas spilled into the streets as early as 9 a.m. Saturday morning, starting the first leg of the festivities in McCarren Park in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. With additional stops in nearby Williamsburg and throughout lower Manhattan, the event also offers live music and games until 7 p.m. for participants from all over the tri-state area.
In Grand Central Terminal, the scene just before 10 a.m. on Dec. 12 was uncharacteristically frenetic for a Saturday morning. A swarm of rowdy red-robed men and women flooded the station, most in groups coming from Westchester County and Connecticut on Metro North trains. Stopping to take frequent selfies and send Snapchats, some members of the boisterous pack sang carols as they sipped discreetly from holiday-themed flasks. Others drank from orange and cranberry juice bottles, with empty bottles piled high on terminal garbage bins.
Although the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which oversees Metro North and Long Island Railroad (LIRR) service, and New Jersey Transit banned alcohol on trains and at stations this weekend, the presence of some visibly intoxicated Santas drew criticism from other New Yorkers.
“The rabid, drunk Santas may just be the most annoying thing on the trains,” said Ali Dualeh of Hamilton Heights. “I would rather sit through an hour-long delay than deal with SantaCon.”
Dualeh is one of several city residents who feel SantaCon has become a public nuisance. In previous years, several videos surfaced of SantaCon participants fighting during the event, as well as urinating and vomiting in public.
“I walked outside today and was literally gripped with horror when I realized it was SantaCon,” said Nieve Mooney, a Manhattan resident.
Others feel that the risk of consuming high amounts of alcohol all day at the event poses significant health risks to participants and members of the public.
City officials, hearing complaints of public intoxication and disorderly behavior from residents, have even urged the State Liquor Authority to ensure that SantaCon organizers coordinate better with law enforcement and community officials to make sure the event is safe for participants and members of the community.
“Each holiday season, local elected officials, community boards and local precincts face a wave of complaints as the SantaCon bar crawl passes through their neighborhoods,” State Senator Brad Hoylman wrote in a Dec. 7 letter. “This year, we are again hoping to take preemptive action.”
SantaCon responded to the letter, saying it had notified law enforcement of its route this year, and that no participants were arrested or issued violations last year. Event organizers also say that they have begun issuing safety advisories and alerts to participants.
For some New York City residents, SantaCon is a harmless and entertaining tradition.
“Yes, there are people who get very drunk and don’t know what they’re doing,” said Matt Lugo of Astoria, Queens. “But I think people have done a better job in trying to be safe.”
When done responsibly, SantaCon brings people together in the spirit of the holiday season, said Lugo, who is participating for the third year in a row.
“It’s just a fun day,” the social media professional said. “Everyone is having fun and dressed the same, it’s almost like everyone is kind of the same for a day.”