NEW YORK – Santas came by the thousands, reindeer formed a kick line and oversized elves cavorted with saucy Mrs. Clauses as a police helicopter circled overhead.
Welcome to SantaCon, the annual Christmastime costume-parade-meets-pub-crawl that was hoping this year would persuade New York it's more nice than naughty.
"Look out for your reindeer. Look out for your elves," organizers advised the crowd as Saturday's festivities began with a mix of safety messages and psyching-up: "Can I get a 'ho'?!"
Before long, over a thousand costumed revelers were headed off to bar-hop and make merry through Brooklyn and Manhattan.
Jessica Carr and Victoria Pirolli had turned themselves into snow globes, each encasing her head and torso in bubble-umbrella-like plastic, with a foam rubber base around the hips. The two science teachers from New Jersey said they were at their fifth SantaCon for the creativity, not the carousing that earned the event an out-of-control reputation in recent years. Organizers said the event also raises tens of thousands of dollars for charity.
"We have fun," Pirolli said. "We don't pee in bushes or anything."
Tracing its origins to a prankish, anti-consumerist gathering in San Francisco in 1994, SantaCon has mushroomed into events in hundreds of cities, with New York's generally the biggest.
It's also drawn criticism, particularly after the 2012 and 2013 celebrations generated two arrests, 85 summonses for disorderly conduct and other offenses, and online videos of brawling St. Nicks. A spokesman for the New York Police Department said there were no reported arrests Saturday evening and organizers say there were no arrests or summonses last year.
Pressured to clean up SantaCon's act, organizers began telling police their plans in 2013. This year, they released their route days ahead of time, got a permit to assemble at Brooklyn's McCarren Park and even agreed to tweet police advice about pedestrian safety. And SantaCon's lawyer, Norman Siegel, said Saturday the group aimed to self-police anyone who got out of line.
Still, a dozen city and state officials publicly aired concerns about potential binge drinking and bad behavior. Police Commissioner William Bratton on Friday warned "anybody who wants to come into the city and raise hell dressed up as Santa Claus — we're not going to tolerate it." NYPD Chief James O'Neill suggested the event was a burden at a time of heightened security concerns after attacks by extremists in Paris and elsewhere.
"We are in trying times all throughout the world, and to have to expend more resources on an event like this, at times, it's frustrating," O'Neill said.
To four-time SantaCon-goer Michael Fincher, troubled times were an argument for the celebration, not against it.
"With what's going on in the world today, we need something lighter," said Fincher, a retail worker from Middlesex, New Jersey.
Something lighter — or light-saber, in the case of the Lambert family, decked out in a Santa-meets-"Star Wars" theme. Including 4-year-old Aliana as Princess, yes, Sleigha.
"It incorporates family values, if you seek them out," said Steven Lambert, who said his Manhattan family would skip the bar scene and be home by noon. "Its origins are based on festivity, regardless of religion or beliefs. That's the fun of being a New Yorker."