NEW YORK – When red-suited revelers throng the city's streets and taverns under the banner of SantaCon, some see an outpouring of holiday spirit, not to mention spirits. But to others, it's the blight before Christmas.
After complaints about boorish, bar-hopping St. Nicks got attention from local officials and police, the event's ringleaders are trying to quell the SantaCon-troversy ahead of this year's gathering Saturday.
They're pledging to advise police of their usually guarded plans, have volunteers help control the roving crowd of Kringles and send the message that SantaCon is a meant to be a "festive culture jam," not a bad-Santa bender.
"This year," the event's website vows, "we are cleaning up Santa's act."
It's a coming-of-age moment for SantaCon, which traces its origin to a consumer-culture-tweaking "Santarchy" in San Francisco in 1994 and now spans events in more than 300 cities worldwide. Fueled by the wildfire word-spreading of social media, the New York celebration has become one of the biggest, mushrooming in roughly a decade from a few hundred bearded boozers to tens of thousands, by some estimates.
As numbers have swelled, the event's image has morphed from whimsical flash mob to flashpoint, even for New Yorkers used to such freewheeling shindigs as the giant Greenwich Village Halloween Parade. SantaCon's organizers are as tough to pin down as the elf himself -- one responded to an inquiry from The Associated Press but refused to be quoted by name -- but the site acknowledges the event "has had growing pains."
Enthusiasts say the daylong event starts at 10 a.m. and aims to put a cheeky, modern spin on holiday traditions -- "don we now our gay apparel," anyone? -- while generating money for both bars and charities. Participants are instructed to make $10 charitable donations and encouraged to bring small gifts to bestow on one another and passers-by.
"For me, SantaCon is about just dressing up and having fun, laughing till it hurts and enjoying being part of a massive celebration. ... It isn't about drinking or getting wasted," says Brandon Ferreira-Hanyo, 27, of East Quogue, N.Y. He's looking forward to attending for a third consecutive year.
"It's gotten so huge you have to take the good with the bad," he says, but he feels the complaints about drunken rowdiness are overblown.
Bar owners are split. To Dan Warren, the managing owner of Common Ground, a hangout in Manhattan's East Village, "it's festive and fun" and a boost to daytime business. But SantaCon-goers are frozen out of Hotel Chantelle, a cocktail lounge in Manhattan's Lower East Side, after a sloshed Claus harassed women brunching there two years ago, managing partner Tim Spuches said.
To some onlookers, SantaCon is about as jolly as explaining to a kindergartener why Santa just tossed his milk and cookies.
"Take your body fluids and public intoxication elsewhere," read "SantaCon free zone" signs that appeared this week on the bar-laden Lower East Side, where some residents already weary of living with nightlife see SantaCon as a final straw.
"Now we have a whole day of vomiting and vandalism and people acting without any decorum or respect for other people," says Diem Boyd, a leader of LES Dwellers, the group that made the signs. "I think anything quaint about it is gone by now."
So do some police and politicians.
The New York Police Department logged a sole, disorderly-conduct arrest at SantaCon last year, along with 73 open-container tickets and a summons for public urination. That was enough for at least one police lieutenant, who suggested to midtown Manhattan bars that the event hurt the neighborhood more than it helped the establishments.
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly then made clear the department supports SantaCon, calling it generally peaceful and an example of "what makes New York New York."
But some city and state officeholders also were pressing the organizers to thwart misbehavior, and threatening to ask police and bars to do so if SantaCon wouldn't. Meanwhile, some of the area's commuter railroads are banning alcoholic drinks on their trains during the celebration, as they do during some other events.
And so, organizers say, a more orderly SantaCon is coming to town.
They agreed to let police and community leaders know their planned route, which participants learn only in real time by text and tweet. Volunteer Santa's helpers will help work to keep sidewalks -- and participants' conduct -- passable, according to the event website and to state Sen. Brad Hoylman, who spearheaded a recent phone conference between officials and SantaCon leaders.
Hoylman says he appreciates the effort but wonders how much sway volunteers can exercise over an event that prizes spontaneity.
Leading up to it, SantaCon's wranglers are trying to instill a sense of responsibility, if in an in-your-bearded-face way.
"Santa spreads JOY. Not terror. Not vomit. Not trash," the site says. "Would you want those under YOUR tree?"