Described as "part parade, part pub crawl", SantaCon — an event that began as something of a quiet affair in San Francisco back in 1994 — has started to get more than a little raucous lately. "Non-profit, non-political, non-religious and non-sensical", headlines were again made by London's SantaCon in 2016, with some extra merry Santas wrestling, dancing in the streets, and climbing and pissing on things that they shouldn't have been climbing and pissing on.
Of course, it's usually the inflammatory headlines that make the news, so we decided to go and see for ourselves what really happens when you crowd thousands of people together in festive fancy dress, tell them to 'spread Christmas cheer' and give them an unlimited remit for public drinking.
'Santarchy' or no? We shall see…
Early Saturday afternoon, near Holborn Station. We spot our first Santas running across the road on Southampton Row. Santa can stop traffic if he likes, as is proven many times later.
From a distance, it sounds like a football crowd — drunken chanting and all. We find Santa milling around Great Queen Street. There are various SantaCon start points, but we are following the 'North' route, which started a few hours earlier in Granary Square, King's Cross.
First impressions? Santa is noisy and boisterous. He/she seems to enjoy Strongbow and Stella, and sometimes prosecco with a yellow label. Lady Santas sip lattes in the front of Pret. Some Santas carry pillows - we later see them being thrown over the heads of the crowd.
Santa has stopped near Sainsbury's. He seems to have lost his momentum. We start walking south and find a far larger group on Great Queen Street, headed towards the Freemason's Hall. This line has more purpose, spilling onto both sides of the pavement. There is the sporadic shouting of "Merry Christmas" at bemused bystanders and nervous looking shopkeepers. There is music, there is laughter. And there are sprouts.
We see one such sprout hit a guy in the face outside the Sainsbury's on Southampton Row. Later we see a man in front of us hit in the shin, shortly before we too take a sprout to the knee (as opposed to an arrow to the knee). It comes, trebuchet like, sailing over a group of people. In the trail of Santachy, amidst all the drink bottles, the occasional crushed sprout can be found.
Yes, despite pleas not to be 'that Santa’ there are cans and bottles left everywhere, a trail following the route around various central London landmarks - in the inexorable march toward Trafalgar Square.
The atmosphere? Raucous but not sinister - a little edgy from all the sprout throwing. Multiple Santas wield Christmas trees with spent beer cans impaled upon the branches. There are thumping dance and techno remixes of Christmas songs. Many a tourist shyly steps forward to take a selfie with/by Santa - with the Asian tourists particularly enthralled by the whole thing.
They've managed to turn 'ho ho ho' into a war cry. Another chant repeats:
"What do we want?
When do we want it?
A garbage truck tries to get by, some Santas climb aboard, others appear to be trying to chat with (or distract?) the driver by climbing up beside the cabin. You only hope that nobody falls into the compactor. Just after, a shifty-looking Santa tosses a sprout at the back of female Santa. Is that how Santas flirt with one another? More Santas are climbing onto the columns by the front of the Freemason's Hall. One Santa takes something out of a Ziploc, as another Santa holding a can of Strongbow implores him to "go easy on it".
We keep heading towards the music and the beating heart of the merriment. There's a black flag flying — part Chris Kringle, part Jolly Roger. Here whatever leadership this chaotic group has is to be found. This is also where the music is coming from. Though various folks have boom boxes in/on their rucksacks, at the centre of things there is a group of people that can only be described as the 'Christmas pirates'.
And the pirates have brought an amazing wheeled sound system, shaped like a treasure chest, decorated with flashing LEDs and full of chocolate coins (many of which are distributed to young passers-by).
Amongst the organiser Santa-Pirates is one determined man with a megaphone. Aside from the fact that the megaphone doesn't seem to work much of the time, this man is never actually heard giving instructions. Instead, he shouts "ho ho ho". We later discover that he is an organiser, as he explains the route that we are taking to another less coherent Santa. Where the party chest goes, Santa follows.
When you look at how this route plays out, it's less spontaneous and anarchistic than you may think. There's been some thought put into this. That said, Santacon seems to operate like a super-organism, shedding and acquiring individual Santas as it goes along. Some break off or join from side streets, forming smaller groups that stop at the supermarket, or linger outside pubs. There's a certain crowd mentality and group identity, most people loudly referring to each other as Santa.
Public pissing is inevitable. As there is no firm route, there are no toilet provisions and this much drink being consumed. I see the first of many leave his mark on the side of the London Transport Museum.
To Covent Garden
Into Covent Garden we go, Santas singing along to a hardbass remix of "Wonderful Christmastime". The sea of tourists and shoppers part like the ocean before Moses, as the red (and occasionally green and brown) parade marches through. We stop in the piazza. Wherever we go, we find worried security guards. They have probably not been briefed — and the route is never given in advance.
A portly fellow with a white beard who is not dressed as Santa briefly draws the attention of the Santas. "Oh my god it's Santa! Santa-Santa-Santa! Santa-Santa-Santa!" A micro celebrity, if only for a minute — he walks off laughing, taken aback by all the attention.
The booze starts to kick in
To get an idea of the culture — a beer is forced upon us by a drunken Santa who demands to know why we're not drinking. Not wishing to drink another Santa's booze, we try to refuse. We are told not to worry because this particular Santa "earns 90k a year". There are repeated attempts to refuse the beer, but Santa is having none of it.
Observing one Miss Santa drink Campo Viejo out of a bottle, we are pretty sure we observe another Miss Santa's butt being groped by two, also dodgy looking Santas."No, Santas!" she laughs, and it appears no offense has been taken. Still, not cool, Santas.
Just after this, one Santa falls off/over the reindeer sculpture in Covent Garden. He lands on Miss Santa, who is sitting nearby — his fall breaking something she left next to her. After apologising, it looks like he's trying to pick her up (figuratively, not literally). Bemused bystanders ask us over and over again what the hell is going in — perhaps because we are some of the only sober ones.
It stops in Covent Garden longer than normal, which gives us time to observe the turn out. There's a man in an elf Morphsuit, drinking what appears to be booze out of a mil-spec CamelBak and shepherding a huge luggage bag covered in wrapping paper. It's a safe bet to assume that this is either another sound system or something full of alcohol. There's one woman with what appear to be sprouts in her hair, and at least two fishnet-wearing crossdressing Santas. Plus the occasional green clad elf, and a rare Rudolph onesie.
There's also the odd guy giving old folks hugs and shouting "Merry Christmas!" in a jovial way. The one we can see is teetering, and unstable — another more sober Santa comes to check up on him. This Santa means well, but will be on his arse soon.
Speaking of people on their arses, it's about now where the alcohol is hitting saturation point. As 4pm dawns there are people stumbling all over Tavistock Street, as we head south towards the Embankment…
South Bank and Trafalgar Square: Finale, police interest
Down Embankment we go, past Temple. We take a wrong turn near Waterloo Bridge, to shouts from the front of "wrong way Santa!". The parade reverses.
The route progresses further, and more folks take another wrong turn at Millennium Bridge. Again, this prompts lots of shouting and whistling. This time it doesn't work, as the wayward Santas disappear off into the horizon. Will we see them again? And how would we know if we did? It’s getting dark and we are all basically dressed the same.
It seems that route planning and group cohesion get harder as blood alcohol levels increase and the light drops. But the core; the Pirate-Santas which we have attached ourselves to — they seem to know where this thing is going. The chest grinds on, now playing a song in which the xylophone melody is clearly out of key with the rumbling bass.
Finally, after the last leg down Northumberland Avenue, it all ends — Trafalgar Square. As we approach the finish line, we hear them in the distance, the thumping music and chanting that is even louder than our now depleted group. You can see them too, a legion of red - climbing over the Landseer Lions, and raving at the foot of Nelson's column.
And they're still raving when we leave them, presumably, into the wee hours — or until the police get sick of it.
Verdict? Anarchistic, festive fun. And no harm done, as far as we can tell. Whether or not these ersatz Santas end up with coal in their stockings from the man himself remains to be seen.