Get­ting into hol­i­day spir­its, in mod­er­a­tion

San Francisco Chronicle - - BAY AREA - By Steve Ruben­stein

A warn­ing to all San­tas: Don’t get plas­tered.

And yet, Santa will get plas­tered. Thou­sands of San­tas. That’s what hap­pens at San­taCon, the an­nual ad hoc gath­er­ing in down­town San Fran­cisco of wob­bly men and women in Santa and Mrs. Claus suits. It’s unof­fi­cial, it’s an in­sti­tu­tion, it’s ei­ther charm­ing or ob­nox­ious. Ready or not, it’s on for Satur­day.

In San Fran­cisco, San­taCon is ac­knowl­edged if not sanc­tioned. At Union Square, the unof­fi­cial North Pole, there will be no sound sys­tem this year. Or­ga­niz­ers did not get a per­mit, be­cause Union Square has al­ready is­sued per­mits for the skat­ing rink and the gi­ant tree.

One San­taCon non-or­ga­nizer, who iden­ti­fied him­self as Santa Tom, said the lack of a per­mit will not and must not stop San­taCon.

“Union Square can’t keep us out!” he said, in a mes­sage to

San­tas ev­ery­where. “Show up any­way! San­taCon is not can­celed!’’

Al­though San­taCon of­fers lit­tle more than red vel­vet anar­chy, there seem to be a few ac­cepted rules: Bring a toy to give away. Wear a full Santa suit, not just a hat. Don’t Santa and drive. And don’t as­sume a pa­per bag is go­ing to fool a San Fran­cisco cop.

The main rule is to stay sober. Santa doesn’t al­ways fol­low that one.

“Can I get smashed?” says a web­site of­fer­ing an FAQ for San­taCon at­ten­dees.

“Sure,” the site an­swers. “But if this is what you want to do, stay home. Santa be­ing drunk and dis­or­derly in pub­lic isn’t fun for any­one and will get you into trou­ble.”

Mak­ing sure Santa doesn’t go over the line is much like mak­ing sure any other tav­ern cus­tomer doesn’t go over the line.

“It’s our busiest day,” said bar­tender May Coates of the Last Drop Tav­ern on Pow­ell Street. “We’ll be packed. We usu­ally don’t have much problems with San­tas.”

But there are al­ways some San­tas who get a lit­tle too happy at happy hour, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., when most drinks at the Last Drop are $5 and get drained to the last drop.

Coates said it’s easy for a bar­tender to tell when Santa has had enough.

“You tell them they’ve got to save them­selves for the next bar,” she said. “And you serve them a glass of wa­ter.”

Laura Rose­land, a bar­tender at Bartlett Hall on O’Far­rell Street, said San­taCon is “al­ways crazy,” but in a nice way.

She said she has never had to cut off a Santa.

“If some­one is too in­tox­i­cated, it’s a bar­tender’s job to tell them they can’t drink any more,” Rose­land said, but so far the San­tas of her pro­fes­sional ac­quain­tance have be­haved them­selves.

Be­sides, only high-end San­tas can af­ford to belly up at Bartlett Hall, where a Tiki-Ki-Yay rum drink costs $14 and a sparkling­wine-hard-cider Christ­mas spritz runs $12.

Bartlett Hall will have ex­tra se­cu­rity guards on duty, Rose­land said, to make sure San­tas re­main good for good­ness sake.

At the Union Square Sports Bar on Ma­son Street, bar­tender Jeremiah Lowe said he ex­pects the San­tas to be shoul­der to shoul­der.

“There are good San­tas and there are bad San­tas,” Lowe said. “We get both. They get started early and then they move around the town.”

Lowe said he would not hes­i­tate to 86 any over-the-limit Santa.

“When Santa tosses his milk and cook­ies, it’s time for Santa to go,” Lowe said.

The Santa pub crawl fans out all over town. In the Cas­tro, a neigh­bor­hood fa­mil­iar with cos­tumes, some San­tas will likely drop by Twin Peaks Tav­ern on Cas­tro Street.

“Hope­fully, I’ll be off duty,” said bar­tender Stan Stenger. “The bar owners like San­taCon. The bar­tenders, not so much. It’s very crowded. But the San­tas seem pretty nice. You don’t hear the night­mare sto­ries that you do about New Year’s Eve and Hal­loween.”

San­taCon seems to have started in San Fran­cisco in the mid-1990s and moved quickly around the world, some­thing like the red man him­self in his sleigh. The good San­tas, the fun San­tas and the toy-giv­ing San­tas are wel­come. The up­chuck­ing, uri­nat­ing San­tas are anath­ema.

Over the next three week­ends, San­taCons will oc­cur in dozens of cities around the U.S. and in Shang­hai, Vienna, Paris, Hanoi and Naples, Italy. In New York, San­taCon has grown big­ger than the San Fran­cisco ver­sion and not ev­ery­one is happy about it. Com­muter rail­roads in New York, which usu­ally al­low im­bib­ing, now ban al­co­hol on San­taCon day.

“San­taCons have been dis­tin­guished by enough in­ci­dents of pub­lic vom­it­ing and uri­na­tion to fill an in­fi­nite drunk tank,” ac­cord­ing to a 2013 es­say in the New York Times.

Around the world, San­taCon has joined New Year’s Eve and St. Pa­trick’s Day as oc­ca­sions for hav­ing a very good time in pub­lic.

San­taCon is not re­ally an or­ga­nized event, even though it makes enough money for sa­loon­keep­ers to qual­ify. One of the San Fran­cisco web­sites pro­mot­ing the event has links to an on­line cos­tume store sell­ing $37 “cheap” Santa suits on up to a $450 “ma­jes­tic” cos­tume. An­other site says it’s “time for all naughty girls and boys to join the San­taCon Bar Crawl” — af­ter pay­ing a $39 mem­ber­ship fee. But hav­ing a good time and a drink or two, not mak­ing a buck, is what San­taCon is about, the San­tas say.

San Fran­cisco cops, who will be decked out in their stan­dard blue cos­tumes, say the rules for pub­lic be­hav­ior re­main the same re­gard­less of the cut of the red velour.

“Cel­e­brate re­spon­si­bly,” ad­vised San Fran­cisco po­lice spokesman Michael An­dray­chak. “If you drink, don’t drive.”

The cops will have “ad­di­tional re­sources on duty” and a “vis­i­ble po­lice pres­ence” for San­taCon, An­dray­chak said.

That means ex­tra cops. It also means ex­tra cars for the ex­tra cops to drive in­tox­i­cated San­tas off to Santa’s Vil­lage at the Hall of Jus­tice.

Paul Chinn / The Chron­i­cle 2016

The pre-pub-crawl scene in S.F.’s Union Square at the 2016 San­taCon, where re­spon­si­ble drink­ing is the goal.

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