SantaCon Looks a Lot Like Christmas. Christmas 1820, That Is.

The push to make Christmas a family-oriented, commercial holiday was a response to rowdy street celebrations.


Holiday menace or historical throwback? Participants in London’s SantaCon, Dec. 6, 2014.

Photo by Neil Hall/Reuters

This weekend, groups of twenty- and thirtysomethings decked out in cheap Santa costumes will march drunkenly through the streets of New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other cities. These roving bands of merrymakers began as a novel distraction from the usual holiday shopping and family gatherings. But over two decades, SantaCon has morphed into something more exasperating, and the same people that once embraced the event have started calling for an end to the shenanigans.

The public’s annoyance with SantaCon is understandable. Started in San Francisco in 1994 as a one-off act of performance art meant to “take Christmas back from consumerists,” as co-creator John Law described it to the Village Voice last year, it has mutated into something much larger and louder. Where Law and his friends had dropped in on a Macy’s and high-class ball at the Fairmont Hotel, the thousands of Santas joining in the fun more recently stumble only from one bar to the next. Instead of singing carols and dancing with old ladies, like the original SantaCon crew, these dollar-store Santas must be warned not to “roam the streets urinating, littering, vomiting, and vandalizing,” as New York Police Department Lt. John Cocchi wrote in a release. It’s become a sloppier and less creative Halloween parade. St. Patrick’s Day with jingle bells.

Last year, the bars of Bushwick, Brooklyn, banned the event. A group called Boycott SantaCon launched a campaign urging local business owners to “prohibit from your bar anyone dressed as Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus, sexy Claus, elves, sexy elves, reindeer, sexy reindeer, snowmen, sexy snowmen, candy canes, sexy candy canes, Krampus, sexy Krampus, or any other holiday-themed costume or sexy variant of that costume.” This year, controversy has flared in San Francisco, where bar and restaurant owners have been placing signs in their windows reading “No Love for SantaCon.”

But while these Santas clearly need some boundaries, critics go too far in pushing to ban the event altogether. Two years ago, Jason O. Gilbert wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times that, “SantaCon is distinctive, and arguably impressive, in that it contributes absolutely zero value—cultural, artistic, aesthetic, diversionary, culinary or political—to its host neighborhood. Quite simply, SantaCon is a parasite.”

This is not totally fair. In fact, the debauched idiocy of SantaCon offers spectators some surprising cultural and historic value. Specifically, it serves as a peek into how Christmas began in the United States. Despite complaints that these sloppy Santas degrade the holidays, they actually embody their original spirit in many ways.

In New York, Boston, Philadelphia and a number of other cities during America’s first decades as a country, Christmas was celebrated in the streets. Something of an outgrowth of the Saturnalia celebrations of centuries earlier, which it was meant to replace, Christmas was a special time when the normal social structure became porous or inverted entirely. Laborers, newsboys, and total strangers asked their social superiors for tips and gifts, sometimes even going right up to their homes and knocking on the door. It was a concept of “wassailing” that was a tinged with a bit more menace than the door-to-door caroling of today. The singers in this era were of a rougher sort, as well as more numerous—and usually more drunk—than might be expected today. It was their interpretation of Europe’s “myriad customs of outlawry, role reversal, and colorful mockery of the existing order,” as historian Penne Restad describes it. And it could feel quite threatening to the era’s shop- and homeowners.

Of course, raucous partying could soon devolve into more dangerous behavior. In many cases, the celebrators ended up in fights, crashing upper-class festivities, or vandalizing property and storefronts. This, like the more vulgar behavior of the SantaCon hordes today, did not sit well with the city’s merchants, press, or elites.

Going back to the late 18th century, a broadside in the 1772 New York Advertiser criticized how street celebrations of Christmas lacked “decency, temperance, and sobriety” and that the assorted masses “spend their time in gaming, drunkenness, quarreling, swearing, etc., to the great disturbance of the neighborhood.”

One major difference between the SantaCon mobs of today and those of two centuries ago is class. The marauders of the 19th century were typically street toughs and the impoverished, the “ill-bred boys, chimney sweeps, and other illustrious and aspiring persons” as a New York newspaper described them in 1827. These days, the typical Santa is “Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa, if the character were 24 and worked at Bain Capital,” as Gilbert wrote in his Times op-ed. But their motives are similar: creating good-natured disorder. It’s performance art, not protest or aggression.

Growth in immigration and urbanization at larger cities caused the class tension to reach a breaking point. As New York City merchant John Pintard tried to rest up for his genteel New Year’s Day calls to friends in 1820 (the respectable classes’ preferred way to honor the holidays), he was interrupted by a band of carousers playing their drums, fifes, and whistles down Wall Street. He complained in a note to his daughter that the noisy revelers “interrupted all repose till day light, when I arose.”

The patrician Pintard—co-founder of the the New-York Historical Society and Society for the Prevention of Pauperism—longed for a more civil, family-oriented celebration. It would be his friend, the wealthy professor Clement Clarke Moore, who would help make this a reality. Moore, who held similar concerns about the shifting urban landscape of New York City, in 1823 composed the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” for his family. (It was published anonymously, and Moore was not credited until years later.) He dropped St. Nicholas’ ecclesiastical garb and imagined him as a “pedler” smoking the stump of a pipe. Moore effectively co-opted the rowdy wassailers, turning them from the obnoxious ruffians who demanded money to a friendly fellow who—though he startles the narrator out of sleep—is there only to offer up gifts, not demand them.

In Moore’s telling, the social inversion long associated with the holidays remained, but instead of the rich providing gifts to poor, adults now gave gifts to kids. This helped solidify a new way to celebrate Christmas: neither a noisy party on the street nor a dignified visit to friends but rather a family holiday, overseen by the good-natured spirit of Santa Claus. The transformation did not happen overnight, but once introduced, this new version of Christmas spread fast. Merchants eagerly promoted it, seeing the obvious profit to be made in this peaceful, present-filled approach. The domestic celebration became the “real Christmas” in newspaper reports, while the drunken street carousing was soon rebranded as “crime.”

The mob craziness outside the home became faux revelry inside with the controlled parameters of household games where the kids played and adults indulgently looked on. The good-natured riotousness was pushed to the fringes (and eventually ended up on New Year’s Eve). 

But the rise of SantaCon (and, in a similar way, the resurgence of St. Nick’s scary friend Krampus, long beloved in Europe and more recently embraced in the U.S., currently starring in his own holiday film) reflects the undercurrent of misrule that remains a part of Christmas’ DNA. While we can try our best to suppress it, chances are it will pop back up in another guise—Drunk Santa or Sexy Reindeer, in this case. As disruptive and distasteful as it may be, drunken, costumed debauchery may be a truer celebration of Christmas than peaceful family gatherings around the yule log.