Every December, about 17,000 people gather on the streets of San Francisco for what has become one of the city’s preeminent drinking holidays: SantaCon.
“You’ll see people wearing some version of the Santa costume, and they’ll just be going from bar to bar in big groups of Santas,” says Alyssa Poe of Berkeley.
She first stumbled upon SantaCon on a Saturday in December a few years ago, while visiting San Francisco with a friend. Ever since, she’s wondered where the event came from, and how it became a phenomenon that’s now celebrated in cities like London, Melbourne and Tokyo.
Though New York City can lay claim to having the biggest SantaCon these days, it got its start in San Francisco. This year, the event takes place on Dec. 8.
Bay Curious takes a look back to when it first began with this timeline from reporter Sonia Paul, who first wrote about SantaCon for Harper’s Magazine.
1977: The Suicide Club, a secret society focused on creating experiences for people to face their fears, is founded in San Francisco. The group’s events include both daredevil urban adventures and infiltration into groups like the California Nazi Party.
Late 1977: One of the Suicide Club’s founders, Gary Warne, comes across a Mother Jones article about Solvognen, a Danish anarchist theatre group that demonstrated in 1974 against the greed and consumerism associated with Christmas. Warne suggests a Suicide Club event where members would dress up as Santa, but no one acts on it, and the idea is forgotten.
1986: The Cacophony Society is born as a more expansive and less intense version of the Suicide Club. It calls itself “a randomly gathered network of individuals united in the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society.” Cacophony Society gatherings revolve around subversive pranks and bizarre events, like throwing a formal party in the laundromat.
1987: Rob Schmitt, the founder of SantaCon, moves to the Bay Area from Minnesota. He soon becomes involved with the Cacophony Society.
Fall 1994: While making costumes for a Cacophony event at his friend’s house, Rob Schmitt sees a postcard of people dressed as Santa playing pool in a gay bar. The sender of the postcard participated in the first themed camp at Burning Man, Christmas Camp. Rob gets an idea: What if the Cacophony Society threw an event where people could dress up as Santa and go around the streets of San Francisco? He is not aware of Solvognen or Gary Warne’s idea.
He takes his idea to a Cacophony Society meeting, where some people dismiss it, but a few are interested. They hold a planning meeting at Specs’ Twelve Adler Museum Cafe. They figure out where they can buy Santa suits and decide to rent a bus to shuttle the Santas around the city. Rob secures free passes to ride the cable car and informs workers at Emporium-Capwell, a now-defunct department store, that he’ll be bringing a bunch of Santas over on a Tuesday night in late December.
Dec. 20, 1994: The first SantaCon — or Cheap Suit Santas as it was called — is held in San Francisco. Thirty-eight participants dressed in Santa suits meet at the Embarcadero, where a skating rink is set up for the holidays. They get into a snowball fight with ice shavings before marching into a local hotel shouting “ho, ho, ho.”
A bus takes the Santas around the city, where they crash company Christmas parties, but the more memorable stops are a kiddie carnival located at the top of Emporium-Capwell, a debutante ball and a unionized strip club called the Lusty Lady.
Late that night, John Law, one of the co-founders of Burning Man who was also a member of the Cacophony Society, has his friends pretend to hang him from steel scaffolding in the middle of the street (he is wearing a body harness underneath his Santa suit that enables this).
He says his premise for participating in the event is more along the lines of Solvognen’s sentiment about Christmas — he feels modern-day Christmas has become an example of what he calls “middle-class hypocrisy,” and this hanging is meant to be a street-theater protest against that.
December 1995: SantaCon returns, and more than 100 people take part in this year’s event. With more people, more alcohol and more boldness among participants, it takes on a more rambunctious tone. At the end of the night, John Law has his friends hang him from a street lamp for another street-theater protest.
December 1996: The Portland chapter of the Cacophony Society brings SantaCon up north for its own version of the event. A website, Santarchy.com (a fusion of “Santa” and “anarchy”) helps advertise the event. With the rise of the internet, more people find out about SantaCon and bring it to their city.
1997 onward: SantaCon grows into an annual tradition in different cities around the world and becomes known as a pub crawl. New York, London, Los Angeles and Tokyo are just a few of the cities where SantaCon now takes place.
This piece originally published on December 6, 2018, on KQED’s Bay Curious podcast. The radio piece was produced by Jessica Placzek.