Penn Station looked a little different Saturday morning as groups of Santas and people dressed in Christmas-inspired costumes milled about in search of the exits. Two teenage girls dressed as Christmas trees with garlands twisted around their waist waited in line at a Starbucks. Several groups of elves and Santas were on their phones trying to figure out where to meet up with friends, and a young woman sporting a Santa outfit and a perfect hairstyle was searching nervously for something in her designer purse bag.
“Oh, it’s today,” said a man to his friend as they stared at the Santas flowing past them.
“Today” was SantaCon, that annual pub crawl charity event in which hundreds of elves, snowmen and Santas descend on a single meeting place on a designated day in December, take a group photo and proceed to stagger from bar to bar for hours.
It was only 10 a.m. and just outside Penn Station a crowd was starting to get a little tipsy. With music blasting, the party had started.
“Please get off the raindrop, reindeer,” one of the organizers yelled in a microphone at a man in a reindeer costume who had climbed the raindrop-shaped statue in the center of Plaza 33 on West 33rd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues. Despite the early hour, drinks were already spilling as the crowd of Santas squeezed in to pose for a group photo.
“This is a very excited, very well dressed and very early crowd. Much more exuberant than past years,” said Eliza Spear, one of the SantaCon organizers, dressed as Captain Claus, wearing a colourful beard and a red pirate hat.
SantaCon, a charity event, has raised over $400,000 since 2013, according to the official web page of the event. Participants pay a $12 donation and get a Santa lanyard that allows them to enter the 16 major anchor venues all day long. Drinks are not included.
By 11 a.m., the crowd in the plaza was loud, and Christmas anthems by Mariah Carey and Wham was blasting. Santas kept on coming out of Penn Station and joining the hundreds already gathered. Police officers were stationed around the plaza making sure that no one was leaving the event with an open alcohol beverage.
One participant said the charitable causes are a draw that have brought him and his wife to dress up and travel to New York City from Pennsylvania for the last seven years. “Donating to food kitchens for the people who don’t have the means to get by the holidays is a way of spreading cheer and having a good time,” said Don O’Brian, 65.
O’Brian looked surprisingly like the archetypical image of Santa Claus – complete with flushed red cheeks (thanks to makeup) and a red hat. He and his wife Beverly, 52 took a bus at 6.30 a.m. to attend SantaCon. “We will return as long as we are alive,” said Beverly O’Brian, who wore a red dress and Santa cape.
Like the O’Brian’s, many others were veteran SantaCon attendees. Two women from upstate New York were visiting for the third year, complete with their hair styled into cones that looked like Christmas trees on top of their heads.
“It took about two hours to get ready but we invested a good month making plans, finding a hotel and getting our outfit,” said one of the women. “It’s just fun, and you kill three birds with one shot. You get to see New York City, get wasted and have a good time.”
This year the organizers developed an online SantaCon map to help people navigate which bars they wanted to stop at, giving information about the area, the size of the bar and the activities it offers.
“We start way back in August, meeting with the police, bars, big clubs to make sure that there’s enough police, staff, safety officers,” said Spear. “We are less than five people in the core team, but we have a big staff for this day, at least two people in every venue.”
In past years, organizers have tried to start the event outside Manhattan, but the turnout was not as good. “We’ve learned that Santas won’t go to the outer boroughs at 9 a.m.,” said Spear.
The official event ends at 8 p.m., but people stay longer at the bars or attend the after party scheduled for 9 p.m. at the Highline Ballroom in Chelsea.
As Jimmy Kimmel commented on his show Friday before the event: “It all ends on Sunday morning with the year’s most festive walk of shame.”