BY HEATHER DUBIN | SantaCon is coming to town, and not everyone is thrilled about it. The annual booze-fueled bacchanal features large crowds dressed in Santa Claus costumes who travel from bar to bar throughout the city for a day.
A national and international event, SantaCon started in Manhattan in 2000, and has since boomed from a small group of merrymakers to a throng of thousands. This year, the army of alcohol-seeking St. Nicks are slated to start knocking them back on Sat., Dec. 14, at 10 a.m.
SantaCon’s Web site requests a $10 donation for charity, in exchange for secret SantaCon venues to frequent.
Technology has amplified the fun, as participants are instructed by the Web site to text for the event’s starting point.
In anticipation of a roving drunkfest, several Downtown bar owners are gearing up to take precautions.
Douglas Bunton, co-owner of the Grassroots Tavern, a 38-year-old bar on St. Mark’s Place near Third Ave., recalled his first experience with SantaCon.
“It wasn’t going to happen,” he said. “A crowd of people came in and were chanting, ‘Santa Claus doesn’t pay! We’re a charity!’ And then a guy a poked me with his candy cane — and that was that. From that day to this, we just lock the door until they go away.”
Bunton’s tactic works, and SantaCon has spared the Grassroots Tavern in recent years. Regulars will be welcome on Saturday, but Santas will be stopped at the door. Other area bars are also intent on discouraging the mass groups from entry.
“People don’t want to deal with it, and don’t want a place roaring. They don’t like the atmosphere,” Bunton said. “I don’t need money that bad.
“When a crowd like this behaves like this, it’s a mob of people too big to mess with,” he said. “And they stiff the bartender. It’s hell on earth.”
Rich Corton, co-owner of Josie’s, Mona’s and Sophie’s bars in the East Village, shared their game plan for SantaCon.
“We’re incapable of servicing large groups, and we’re looking out for overly intoxicated people,” he said.
They have hosted SantaCons in all three bars before, and found it overextends their staff.
“The bar will fill up with 60 people, it’s terrible,” Corton said. “We kind of get overwhelmed. It’s for a brief period of time, maybe an hour, but it’s an hour of bedlam.”
Corton noted that staff members who have worked SantaCon for 10 years, “aggressively” do not want the shifts. They also told him that SantaCon Santas are notoriously bad tippers.
“I’m kind of hoping there’s enough pushback that they’ll end up in another neighborhood,” Corton added.
However, there are some places in the East Village that welcome SantaCon. Brendan Cregan, a daytime bartender at Bull McCabe’s, an Irish pub across the street from the Grassroots Tavern, had a different take.
Cregan has worked during SantaCon in the past, and will do so on Dec. 14.
“We let them in, and we’re very supportive of it,” he said. According to Cregan, the bar gets a huge and older crowd of Santas, and lots of money has been raised for charity.
“Santas do tip — every crowd is different,” Cregan said. “The crowd we got last year was unbelievable, all the bartenders were happy. We had three bartenders, a barback and a doorman. We were ready for it.”
While the bar was prepared, Cregan did have some advice for parents on Dec. 14.
“If anybody has kids in the neighborhood, tell them to not bring them out that day,” he said.
At the Continental, on Third Ave. near St. Mark’s Place, bar owner Trigger is also SantaCon friendly. In an e-mail, he wrote, “Make no mistake about it — Trigger and Continental LOVE SantaCon!!!”
“I didn’t start NYC’s SantaCon, but they came to Continental their very first year — when they could all fit into my little bar!” he said.
Trigger has not had problems with the Santas in the past, and claimed his bartenders all want to work the event.
The Continental offers several drink specials, such as five shots of anything for $10. But Trigger has his staff make sure the Santas do not get drunk enough to pass out.
“We don’t let in the wasted Santas, helpers or elves,” he said. “We’re nice about it, but strict when they stumble up. It goes with the territory.”
The Santas do not just inundate the East Village. Maureen Remacle, president of the Sixth Precinct Community Council, said they usual flood the block where she lives, Bleecker St. between LaGuardia Place and Thompson St., because it has wall-to-wall bars.
“Every year, without a doubt, they hit Bleecker St.,” she said. “And there are some bars that won’t let them in. Other bar owners want to make every penny.”
A SantaCon representative, who signed an e-mail response to interview questions “Santa,” has hopes this year’s event will be a real departure from the consecutive-drinking theme of years past.
“Santa” was unable to estimate the number of people at SantaCon this year as the event is nonticketed and open to the public.
When asked if the recommendation from a local police precinct to ban SantaCon from bars and lounges in Midtown and Hell’s Kitchen would only cause an influx of Santas Downtown, “Santa” replied that no ban exists, and attached a YouTube video from New York 1 touting SantaCon as a fun time.
“However, Santa is working with local community boards, police precincts and the NY Parks Department to make this a different kind of SantaCon,” he said. “One that is about gifts, charity, carols, celebration and general merrymaking.”
To do this, social media orchestrating the event is spreading the word that bad behavior is not Santa-worthy. There is a “Santa Code” on the Web site with practical suggestions, including, “Santa spreads JOY. Not terror. Not vomit. Not trash.” The code also cautions Santas not to mess with “kids, cops, bar staff and NYC,” in general.
“Outreach has expounded the virtues of being a respectful Santa — not getting trashed and not trashing the city,” he said. “Gifting, giving, participating, creativity are our focus.”