[Harper’s Magazine] Searching for SantaCon

By 1995, the number of SantaCon participants grew to 100. The Santas crashed the lobby of the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. Credit: Peter Field

“Look up!” Robert Schmitt shouted to me from the window of his friend’s truck, which was towing a dolly down Columbus Avenue in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood. I tore myself away from my phone and gazed ahead. Three figures were perched on the dolly’s flat surface: the giant wide-eyed, bow-tied dog heads of the Bay Area’s late Doggie Diner fast food chain. These beloved icons of San Francisco yesteryear are immediately recognizable to old-timers and history buffs of the city. But transplants and younger Bay Area natives like myself—I was born in 1986—might have to do some Googling.

Schmitt hopped off the truck. His shirt displayed an aged black and white photo from a San Francisco Bay to Breakers run, an annual tradition where thousands of people, many of them drunk, dress up in costume or eschew clothing altogether to race and romp around the city’s hilly streets. The three giant fish faces on his shirt, poking above the crowd and angling in the opposite direction, were unmistakable: The “Salmon Run” racing in the opposite direction, just as salmon swim upstream—another Schmitt prank born from his days rolling with the Cacophony Society, a San Francisco-born urban exploration and prank group.

At fifty-two years old, Schmitt is a large man whose sheepish and often self-effacing mannerisms tend to dwarf his imposing size, and whose humor betrays an earnestness befitting his boyish nature. If you place that triangular crimson hat on his bald head and imagine his graying scruff as long curls of snow white, he could certainly pass for Santa Claus, the man whom he and his friends at the Cacophony Society once decided to dress as in 1994, during what became the world’s first SantaCon.

But that was a long time ago. In the last 20 years, the festival has grown into a global pub crawl, attracting hundreds of thousands of Santa Claus impersonators to hundreds of cities, including New York, Los Angeles, London, Madrid, Tokyo, Prague, Hanoi, Bogota, Melbourne and Shanghai. Similar to the evolution of Burning Man—a sister event held in the Nevada desert—today’s bigger SantaCon events boast social media hashtags, beefed-up cadets of police officers, extra-staffed bars, and Eventbrite tickets. In recent years Santas have been cited for urinating in public and carrying concealed weapons. In New Jersey, the transit authority banned drinking during festivities; in San Francisco, a Santa con robbed a bank and escaped police capture by fleeing into the obscurity of a sea of lookalikes. The once jolly San Francisco celebration, like the city itself, has lost its spirit—although some are still searching for it.

*****

The Cacophony Society arose in San Francisco in 1986, billing itself as “a randomly gathered network of individuals united in the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society.” Its members include the founders of SantaCon, Burning Man, and the novelist Chuck Palahniuk, whose 1996 novel Fight Club centers on a cult devoted to bringing down civilization. “It was a laboratory for experimenting with the culture,” Palahniuk wrote in Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society, a history and compilation of the collective’s antics. “And for experimenting with ourselves.”

The group was named for the 19th century series of detective fiction short stories by Robert Louis Stevenson about London dilettantes who live each day as if it were their last.

The spirit of the Cacophony Society ignited with the social, cultural and political changes of an era. The Free Speech and Free University movements, along with the Summer of Love, had awakened and attracted subcultures of hippies, punks and other nonconformists to San Francisco in the 1960s. By 1977, a group of friends — Gary Warne, Adrienne Burk, David Warren and Nancy Prussia — had founded a secret society centered on creating experiences and challenging people to face their fears. The “Suicide Club,” as the group of mostly white middle-class members were called, became known for street theater, daredevil urban adventures like climbing the girders of the Golden Gate Bridge, and darker explorations like infiltrating the California Nazi Party.1  Its revelers typically didn’t advertise their exploits because they considered the experience more significant than the attention for it. And the experience was not just participation but invention—everyone was encouraged to dream up events.

“It got me doing a couple of things that I would have never have had the courage to do otherwise,” said Peter Field, a quiet, self-described “WASA” (White Anglo-Saxon Atheist) and amateur historian of the Bay Area. “And maybe…made me braver about doing stuff in general.”

The Cacophony Society was a somewhat gentler and more expansive version of the Suicide Club, and started a few years after its predecessor went under. Founded by Suicide Club alumni, subversive pranks and wild and bizarre events outside most people’s imaginations—dressing up in evening wear to roam underground sewer tunnels or have a party in the laundromat, for example—were the soul of the society. “It wasn’t a household name by any means, but little bits and pieces popped up about them,” Erin McCormick, a freelance journalist who worked for the San Francisco Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle during the 1990s and early 2000s, told me. “If you were interested in that, there was a way to get their info.”

A print newsletter called “ROUGH DRAFT,” which advertised the Cacophony Society’s events, quietly appeared in the mailboxes of those who signed up to receive it. People could send ideas for the next newsletter to a box on Irving Street (“Have your write-up and/or illustrations camera ready so that all the newsletter editor has to do is paste it down to the newsletter and xerox it,” reads one set of instructions recounted in Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society). Meetings at bars and cafes to vocalize concepts for events others would laugh at or lambast followed. Nobody was too busy to figure out the next thing to do, and other than the occasional small fee to cover the cost of an event, everything was free and open to all. Cacophony chapters sprouted in cities across the country.

*****

The dog head icons of the Bay Area’s late Doggie Diner chain, which folded in 1986, still attract excitement from those who recognize it. Credit: Sonia Paul

“I was just walking down the street and saw John. He’s on his way to a memorial,” Schmitt explained to me as his friend John Law, one of the co-founders of Burning Man, sat on the dolly, a chocolate-brown canine behind him. Law sported a gray mustache, a dark pageboy hat and a stern eye directed toward the doors of the swanky bar the dog heads were blocking. He knew what was coming.

Immediately, two managers wearing suits emerged. “You’re not planning on leaving that here, are you?” questioned one, his accent difficult to place.

“You’re not from San Francisco, are you, I bet you’re not!” came Law’s retort.

“Uh, no, how’d you guess?”

“We’re not going to leave it here for very long, I’m just stopping to say hi to a friend,” Law said. “And you’re blessed by them being here, in case you didn’t know that.”

“I’m from San Francisco and I know these,” the other manager piped up.

“Well then tell him,” Law nudged.

“And I want to make sure they’re going, but for the time being I’m glad they’re here.”

“Absolutely.”

The managers left, and the small talk of longtime locals ensued. The first topic: the city’s ever-rising prices and upscale persona, thanks in large part to the growth of the technology industry.

“San Francisco is done. It’s finished. Stick a fork in it,” Law said. “I hate to say it, I’m not a living in the past kinda guy, and there’s still some fun stuff here for sure…It’s like Manhattan. Manhattan used to be a hotbed of underground creativity. And unless you’re a multimillionaire, there’s nothing for you there anymore.”

Law and Schmitt traded stories of racing in subway tunnels and escaping gang threats in New York. A ruckus came from street.

A tourist on the roof of a sightseeing bus had spotted the dogs and was shrieking in delight. Law cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted: “It was a collective effort! We did a Kickstarter and we raised 50k! Bought the trailer, redid the dog heads, bought that truck! So I take them around for free to stuff that’s cool.” His makeshift bullhorn still in place, he turned toward the driver. “Something else to put in your tour!”

As dusk started to settle, Law left to deliver the cheery giants to his friend’s wake, and Schmitt and I entered the watering hole next door where the first SantaCon meeting took place in 1994. We stood at the bar to order. “Do you cheese?” he asked me.

*****

Over a chunk of gouda and saltines in the back corner of Specs’ Twelve Adler Museum Cafe, Schmitt delved into the San Francisco mythology that eventually inspired him to conceptualize the event he so rarely admits to inaugurating.

Armed with an associate’s degree in electronics and inspired by Steve Jobs and the rumored creativity of the region, he had come to San Francisco in 1987 from Minnesota to work for what “could be called the first technology company,” he says, building printers, hard drives, modems and other computer accessories. His boss, a member of the Cacophony Society, mentioned the group once, but Schmitt didn’t think anything of it. Then, a Cacophony event happened, and friends inquired where he had been. Then another.

Schmitt can’t remember the first event he attended now. But after going to a few gatherings, his urge to become a part of the group soared—because, quite simply, it was fun. Two years stuck in a dark corner of his office, meanwhile, was growing him sick of technology work. The turning point came when his company wrote him up after Schmitt took a week off to attend his grandfather’s funeral, and an additional day to buy a car.

“I was in an industry that was amazing. But when they said I took too much vacation for a funeral?” A mixture of contempt and disgust crossed Schmitt’s face.

He left his job on Independence Day. He met a man who worked to set up and break down trade shows at a Cacophony event on the Golden Gate Bridge, and inquired how he could get into the business. “He gave me a phone number,” Schmitt said. “I called it. I was working the next day.”

The Cacophony Society was transforming Schmitt’s life, but he remained a low-key participant who never sought the spotlight. “It took me a while to become a person that throws events,” he admitted in between sips and gulps of an Anchor Steam, a local beer. “But when I did…” His voice trailed off, and he grinned.

*****

Gary Warne, the founder of the Suicide Club, first tossed around the idea of a flash mob of Father Christmases around late 1977, John Law told me. Warne had come across a Mother Jones article on Solvognen, a Danish anarchist theater group that organized a four-day “Santa’s Army” demonstration against greed, consumerism and capitalism in 1974 Copenhagen. Inspired by the Danes, he wrote a mock suicide note as Santa in a Suicide Club newsletter (called “Nooseletter”), penning frustration at how the holiday season had become “the greatest pageant of an induced mass addiction to pointless commodities.” The newsletter also suggested an event where they would dress up as Santas. But no one ever acted on it, and after Warne passed away, in 1983, so too did the idea for several years.

I met Law on a rainy night in his dim, cramped office in Oakland, a city across the bridge from San Francisco many displaced San Franciscans now call their home (“I am bicoastal—I live in San Francisco but I work and stay in Oakland frequently,” he quipped in a text message before our meeting). Different corners of the room glowed pink, blue and yellow from neon lights. One yellow strip illuminated a skeleton behind his desk. “It’s symbolic,” Law told me, for items and memories that have gone to the grave. He keeps corresponding mementos, like the wedding ring from his first marriage, below the bones.

When, in 1994, passersby saw those first street Santas—participating in what was originally dubbed “Santarchy,” and advertised and recounted as a “Cheap Suit Santas” event—it “blew their fucking minds,” Law insisted.

Before the internet, Law said, it was more scandalous to juxtapose certain images with concepts antithetical to them, like hanging Santa from a noose, an allusion to his stunts in 1994 and 1995 in which he wore a body harness underneath his red suit and allowed his friends to hang him from a steel scaffolding and, the following year, a streetlight. It was a street-theater protest against what he calls “middle-class hypocrisy.”

“Now, in this incredibly overly mediated era—this Tower of Babel of information that we live in every day, that we wade in every day…Now, I don’t think anybody will be shocked by any image.”

He lifted his hat every so often as he spoke, revealing a bald head he had shaved to become Gomez Addams for Halloween. As our conversation circulated on the way cities breed creativity and finances create exclusivity, I questioned whether San Francisco could nurture a completely original, wacky concept like SantaCon today.

He started to respond, then hesitated. “The class dynamic strata has changed,” he said. Suicide Club and Cacophony Society members included tradesmen and single mothers on welfare. At the time these groups reached their height, it was still possible to live off of unemployment in San Francisco, have a place to live, and have time to make the day more interesting. Now, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development says that a family of four in San Francisco County (and its neighboring San Mateo Country) can earn as much as $105,350 a year and still be considered “low-income.”

Some 70 percent of the people participating in current underground San Francisco exploration groups— at least from what Law has seen—earn upwards of six figures or more working tech-related jobs, and still live with roommates, he said. “You can’t be a working-class person now and have much slack to do creative work.” He shrugged his shoulders. “You’re just too busy struggling to survive.”

The light from Law’s 24-inch flatscreen monitor cast an intermittent shadow on his face. It’s something that Rob Schmitt—typically referred to by his nom de plume, “Chad Mulligan,” if ever cited in SantaCon stories—is willing to come out now, Law remarked.

“You get older, you realize, you know…maybe you did something that people like or is important in some way.”

*****

“Honestly, it’s old enough now,” Schmitt told me back at Specs’, when he acknowledged he doesn’t like talking to press about SantaCon. He sounded as if he were trying to convince himself.

The birth of SantaCon is not thanks to the precedent set by the Danish guerrillas, he said (although he had heard the story of Warne’s suicide note), but to the hijinks of fellow Cacophony members during the early years of Burning Man. The first themed camp at Burning Man was Christmas camp—“all Santa, all the time,” as Schmitt put it.

They served eggnog and played Christmas carols. Campers dressed up as Kris Kringle, Mrs. Claus and elves. A holiday postcard from one of Santa’s helpers after the 1993 festival landed at the home of a mutual friend, and the sight sparked the glimmer of a gag: It was a drawing of a bunch of Santas playing pool in “a leather bar,” he says—a gay bar.

The wheels started turning, and he brought up the idea of dressing up as Santa at a Cacophony meeting. Someone responded that it was the stupidest idea he had ever heard of. But stupid was just fitting, and four people came to the first formal meeting devoted to organizing the event—“right here, where we’re sitting now,” Schmitt told me, the bar, with its historic framed newspaper cutouts and 1950s pop and doo-wop soundtrack, an archetype setting for remembering.

The rest is history. They found $25 Santa costumes, complete with Santa spectacles, available to order from a wholesale store called the Oriental Trading Company. Someone suggested renting a bus—and it so happened that a Cacophony Society member worked for a bus rental company. Nobody thought about going to bars; they were crashing company Christmas parties.

On the night of the first event, December 20, 1994, close to three dozen Santas met near a waterfront in San Francisco. They found their way to a now defunct department store, Emporium-Capwell, where they rode the escalators up and down and frightened children at a kiddie carnival on the top floor, and to a debutante ball, where a San Francisco Chronicle reporter who covered high society, Pat Steger, quoted an observer saying the Santas were “probably at the wrong party, but we’re glad they came by.” Among their other destinations that night was a unionized strip club called the Lusty Lady, the only one of its kind in the nation (in a 2013 piece for The Atlantic, Lily Burana, a former dancer, wrote that its closure that year was “another nail in the coffin of the Bay Area’s Bohemian class—a triumph of capitalism over native culture”). Whenever the shenanigans at each destination became too off-putting to the non-Santas, or the Santas themselves had enough, the bus whisked them away to the next place.

*****

It was supposed to be a one-off event—“it was not ever intended as a pub crawl, ever,” Schmitt emphasizes—but the “Santa Rampage,” or “SantaPalooza,” as others called it, returned the following year with 100 participants. With more publicity and more people involved who didn’t necessarily know each other, the group was emboldened in their rowdiness. Fueled with liquid courage, some Santas made out with each other, got into fights, and dropped articles of clothing to maneuver easier among the crowds. At least one participant carried a handheld crucifix displaying a T-shaped Santa, as pictures from the 1995 event show, and more than a few children were frightened at the sight of the misbehaving St. Nicks. Even if some of the Santas had participated in SantaCon to undermine the false hope parents perpetuate among their children—by leading them to believe in myth only to be eventually heartbroken by truth—the real-life subversion of that didn’t necessarily make the situation any better.

The Portland chapter of the Cacophony Society brought it up north in 1996, and a dedicated website, Santarchy.com, helped fuel its domestic and international spread as online networking grew. Although some cities incorporate holiday toy drives into the festivity, SantaCon’s stain as an obnoxious frat party looms large. Whenever I’ve happened upon the red hats, I’ve done my best to duck away. Some Cacophony Society members have stayed involved throughout the years, but others have distanced themselves. A few years ago, John Law told me, some members held a “death for SantaCon” at SantaCon. They carried a coffin to the funeral-party to put the event to rest, for them.

Schmitt muses at the mixed blessing of success. “Tech kinda killed Cacophony…but it also made Cacophony worldwide,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. Upon coming across a drunk Santa puking near his doorstep a few years ago, John Law promptly sent a text to Schmitt: “Fuck you.” Schmitt sent an immediate response: “I’m sorry.” His bartender friends, Schmitt told me, also curse at him when the day arrives—although they thank him too.

“Do you feel like you’ve outgrown the SantaCon culture?” I asked.

“The way it is now, yes. The way it was, no.”

As the gouda diminished, he dug deeper into his relationship with the Cacophony Society. “All this stuff changed my life because it gave me a wonderful outlet for my creativity,” he told me. “I don’t believe I’m creative…I work a blue collar job. In fact, most of all of us back in the day were blue collar guys. This city was a blue collar town.” He cocked his head. “It was also very cheap.”

He likely won’t be able to afford to live in San Francisco forever, he said. Until then, though, Schmitt manages to find his way toward the events and personalities suitable for his style.

“I just went to an event about a month ago I can’t say anything about. I’m sworn to secrecy.” He paused. “But it was one of the best events I’ve ever gone to in my life.”

This piece originally published on Harper’s Magazine on December 9, 2017.

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