Have you spotted any roaming hordes of drunken Santas in your town this holiday season? If so, then you’ve witnessed one of the newest—and strangest—holiday traditions.
In 1974, members of Solvognen, a Danish activist theatrical troupe, wanted to protest the rampant consumerism that surrounds Christmas. Members dressed up as Santa Claus and stormed a Copenhagen shopping mall, yanking toys and other products off store shelves and handing them out as “presents” to bewildered shoppers.
Most of the participants were arrested, but the stunt was later featured in an issue of Mother Jones, where it caught the attention of a San Francisco prankster collective called the Cacophony Society.
In 1994, 34 of its members took to the streets dressed as Santa to mock the holiday season and a new tradition took hold. Their wacky performance art experiment proved to be quite popular so they staged it again the following year and the one after that and so on. The tradition, dubbed SantaCon, also spread to other cities like Portland and New York City. “Santas” who participated in the first few SantaCons say it was much more political back then. The goal was to criticize the holiday’s rampant consumerism in a fun way. In those days, the fest’s Santas typically made gifts that they would hand out to passersby while they roamed the streets singing parody versions of Christmas carols.
But as SantaCon became more and more popular in the years that followed, it became more of a pub crawl than a protest. Recent SantaCons in New York City have descended into misbehavior and chaos. Local residents and bar staffers alike have come to loathe it. SantaCon was called, “a day-long spectacle of public inebriation somewhere between a low-rent Mardi Gras and a drunken fraternity party” by the Village Voice. To help combat the problems, organizers have since introduced “helper elves” to deal with poorly behaved Santas.
Those who helped create the tradition have said that they’re embarrassed by what it’s become. Nevertheless, SantaCons are staged annually all across the world. 300 cities, including Moscow and London, hosted the event last year. Several SantaCons also help raise money for charity and contribute to local food drives. So maybe all those kooky Santas aren’t so bad after all.