To some, the term "Crimson Tide" refers to a Denzel Washington film; to others, it's a colloquialism for menstruation. But for a special few, it refers to that time of year when chestnuts roast on open fires, Jack Frost nips at your nose, and you don your special suit and join hundreds of other drunken Santas in a yuletide mobile theme party called "Santacon"—drinking, carousing, and giving presents for hours on end.
I should know. For I am Santa. Or at least I was. And shall be again.
If reading this seems ridiculous, consider the frazzled downtown holiday shoppers on December 9, browsing at Saturday Market, looking up to see myself and hundreds of Santas—Santas of every shape, size, color, gender, and smell—marching up the street. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus... but not just "a" Santa. While the Santage ebbed and flowed throughout the day, it at one point reached 475 Santas, according to organizers.
That's right, "organizers." Despite being called "Santa mob" and "Santarchy," this is not pure chaos. The great gears of Santacon are run by a team of volunteers, generally members of Portland's infamous Cacophony Society, who have been coordinating the dates, times, and routes of the Red Menace since Portland's first Santacon in 1996.
Santacons occur on different dates in different cities, allowing Santa to sort of do a West Coast tour—some Santas even do a Seattle-Vancouver (BC)-Portland Triangle, with locals putting up visiting Santas. The first Santacon on record was in San Francisco in 1995, and now Santa marches in cities across the US and Canada, England, Australia, Germany, and Japan.
THAT DOESN'T LOOK LIKE SANTA
While the mainstream masses get their gifts by rioting at Wal-Mart, Santacon Santas hold "toy workshops" at local homes and, more often, bars. Arriving with tools, broken and soon-to-be-broken toys, and glue guns, Santa's helpers create Frankensteinian presents, wrapped and separated into "nice" bags for odd but child-friendly gifts, and "naughty" bags for anything "sexy, violent, or sharp" to give to adults. In this respect, a bunch of rowdy drunks seem more responsible than many toy company executives. Select Santas even gave food vouchers to homeless people along the route. Apparently, Portlanders were good this year, because nobody got any coal.
To be Santa, one must do certain things. A Santa suit, or some semblance thereof, is always useful. However, being "Santa" can mean more than dressing in the classical red-with-white-furry-trim getup. Santas this year included pirate-Santa fusions, Elvis Santas, Rasta Santa, Jesus Santa, Super-Santa, Drag Queen Santas, and a Zombie Santa who either sported a prosthetic leg shaped like bones or is quite the character actor. Elves and Mrs. Clauses abounded, as did a variety of Christmas (excuse me, "Holiday Season") themed outfits, including two guys on stilts and at least one Yeti. Giving toys or candy is optional, as is packing a flask. Many Santas follow the time-honored tradition of cocktails in Windex or Pine-Sol bottles, and one Santa had some sort of Holiday Cheer she shot into other Santa's mouths courtesy of a pesticide sprayer.
There is certain Santa etiquette. "Never wash the suit!" is a common refrain. Also, one must refer to oneself only as Santa, ideally in the third person. This is an interesting habit, as many hungover Santas can testify the next day. Personally, I had a hard time not saying, "Santa needs coffee" to the poor barista on Sunday morning. Santa refers to other Santas as Santa. Santa does not do anything as Santa that would cause harm to Santa as a whole. This actually works—the entire incident was without vandalism, save the word "Ho" sprayed onto walls with that fake snow stuff.
PEOPLE SANTA DOESN'T FUCK WITH
Other than that, the closest thing Santacon has to rules is a list of four groups not to fuck with. Santa doesn't fuck with police: They can arrest Santa. More importantly, they might arrest someone with Santa's description, such as all the other Santas. Impressively, as conspicuous as Santacon is, Portland's event went without police accompaniment this year. Santa also doesn't fuck with security, as they can and will call police. This is why a single mall guard can stop an army of Santas in their tracks, a sad sight if ever one was seen.
Santa also does not fuck with kids. Partially because some Santas have kids, and other Santas were kids, but mostly because kids have a hard enough time dealing with the holidays as it is. The idea of kids terrified of Santa is universally respected enough without adding to the problem.
Finally, there is the self-evident. SANTA DOES NOT FUCK WITH SANTA.
Santa, however, has no problem fucking with anyone else. Those who aren't actually Santa yet are fair game; one website had been listing that the December 9th Santacon was "sold out," in an attempt to confuse/discourage/just plain mess with newbies, lurkers, and dreaded hipsters. Likewise, Santa message boards denote how cool Santacon was back in the day, when Santa packed live ammo and had drug-addled sex in public.
Innocent passersby are generally not targeted for mind games, barring the general inability to comprehend a massive hoard of Santas. Often, Santa is asked to explain, "What are you guys doin'?" Depending on the asker, Santa may explain Santacon as much as it can be explained, but is more likely to retort, "IT'S CHRIIISSSSTMAS! WE'RE SAAANNNTA!" Santas on the periphery have been known to look around and act shocked by the imposters following him. Of course, some Santas carry extra hats in order to press-gang new Santas. But by and large, the standard reply to any and all questions was simply, "I can neither confirm nor deny the existence of Santa."
WHY SO SECRETIVE, SANTA?
"Neither confirm nor deny." This Santa heard that phrase a lot after it was divulged that he was an imbedded Mercury reporter. In fact, this Santa was kept decidedly unclear of the events of December 9, for concern of publicizing routes or other trade secrets. One Santa, Santa Yankee Pants, AKA Conch, told me that he was one of a core group of primary Santa herders who "go back to the days when Santacon was a completely improvised exercise, something that's no longer possible with a crowd of 200-plus Santas." He also noted that Santa Wop (real name: Rob the Wop), by far the most crucial to the event's organization, was by far the least likely to say anything on public record. Others, such as Santa Cupcake, apparently had many great stories that I was informed I would never be told, including some involving local author and Santacon fan, Chuck Palahniuk.
And Yankee Pants himself, while keeping me updated with what sorts of stuff I wasn't finding out, revealed only that, "Santa herding involves careful studies of gamesmanship, geography, strategy, and psychology. Using research and reconnaissance missions, you figure out what sort of distractions and mutinies you're likely to encounter from a drunken mob, and how to harness that wave or redirect it."
This sounds made up until one witnesses a Santa-on-Santa screaming match. Then again, the whole event sounds made up until one is eyeball deep in Santa.
With more Santas marching each year, there is more need for organizational structure: Santa can fit down a chimney, but 400 can't fit into your average bar. But planning ahead allows for more than a pub crawl in a red suit: Last year even involved "Reindeer Games" such as elf tosses and a fruitcake catapult at Tom McCall Waterfront Park. This year involved a massive cross-river Santa migration, as boats ferried Santa across the Willamette.
SANTA LIKES ELF PORN
This specific Santa started his day riding his bike to the pre-Santacon brunch. It's amazing how drivers who honk and yell at a bicyclist in a black hoodie and jeans pull aside to make room for a bicyclist dressed as Santa. Brunch was at the home of "Kristi Kringle," a soul brave or foolish enough to publicly invite all of Santa into her home for quiche and bagels, along with last-minute present organization.
The official gathering of Santa was at noon at Skidmore Fountain, and started with a lap around Saturday Market and headed to a bar Santa won't give press to in order to avenge being served a 12-ounce beer for $4.50. Santa then was on the move, first taking the MAX en masse to Pioneer Courthouse Square. Then, this specific Santa got a ride from Rudolph on a bike-powered Santa chariot that any Zoobomber would love to see under their tree.
After being denied access into the World Trade Center, Santa had his next round at a strangely accommodating McCormick & Schmick's, before providing some unexpected entertainment at a wedding. It was then that a fleet of boats would have taken all the Santas across the river, were it not for there being hundreds more Santas than imagined. Not this Santa, luckily. Santa then spent quite a while at Outlaws, the only Santacon-hosting establishment to have sent the Cacophony Society a thank you email. Santa then crossed the Burnside for a quick stop at Myst (or Bliss, depending on which Santa you ask), watched—and I swear to Santa this is true—elf porn at C.C. Slaughter's, and more or less called it a night at Someday Lounge.
By then, a smattering of the once-great hoard remained, although it is likely small roving packs of Santas went on their own missions before heading back to the North Pole... for now.
So, is Santacon a protest against the commercialization of Christmas, or a celebration of it? Good-natured holiday cheer or a bunch of drunks being obnoxious? Is the core of this all somehow connected to the "True Meaning of Christmas" that TV specials talk about? Or all of the above? Find out for yourself! Santa will return for a special second 'Con this Saturday, December 23, once again starting at noon at Skidmore Fountain and rampaging to parts yet unknown. Check out portland.cacophony.org for more info.
So, if a certain little girl happens to be reading this... Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus—a lot of them. And they promise not to fuck with you.