Santacon & New York’s Heritage

Santacon & New York's Heritage by Ari KellenHalloween’s over, and that means it’s time to start thinking about the next big holiday coming up: Thanksgiving Christmas.  While many American Christmas traditions remain the same, new ones have started to catch on in recent years: Krampus has become popular for its dark absurdity, parents love the elf on the shelf because it’s a fun way to convince your kids to behave, and Santacon has taken off because it offers people an excuse to wander around the street drunk.  In this annual mass gathering, which originated in San Francisco, people dressed in Santa costumes go on a parade, often accompanied by copious amounts of alcohol.  With various bars sponsoring the event, it’s evolved into a messy city-wide bar crawl, which has particularly caught on in New York City.  

Many New Yorkers hate the event, and there’s plenty to hate about unruly drunks crowding up your city.  In the Free Williamsburg blog, one post wrote with palpable disdain about it starting off in their backyard this year.  Yet even if it didn’t originate in New York, and even if many New Yorkers wish it didn’t exist, Santacon is actually the most New York event possible.  As an event that attracts people from all sorts of backgrounds who dress up like Santa and drink to excess, it incorporates several major aspects of early New York’s culture.  Don’t believe me?  Let’s take a look at the early history of New York, or more appropriately New Amsterdam.  

Even as Santa Claus has become a symbol of American consumerism (his modern-day appearance actually owes much to Coca-Cola ads meant to sell soda in the winter months), it’s a tradition that goes far beyond that.  St. Nicholas as a Christmas tradition originates with the Dutch, who brought it over with them when they colonized New York in the early 17th century (the name “Santa Claus” is actually a corruption of the Dutch name for St. Nicholas, “Sinterklaas”).  At that time, the English settlers in New England didn’t celebrate Christmas, and while those further south in the Chesapeake did, it was more a giant feast than anything else, and St. Nicholas was nowhere to be found.  Even though the Netherlands lost control of “New Netherland” not even 40 years after founding it, the settlers they brought over remained, incorporating aspects of their culture that extend far beyond hard-to-pronounce subway stations.  Among other things, the Dutch gave us banking, sledding, donuts, easter eggs, cookies, coleslaw, the word “boss”, ice skating and Santa Claus.  

The 17th-century Netherlands was the center of a major trade network that extended from Indonesia to the Baltic to Brazil.  It was also one of the few places in Europe at that time to uphold religious freedom, which attracted people of various backgrounds from around the world.  While the New Amsterdam colony was Dutch, only half of the settlers were actually of Dutch origin, and within 20 years of its founding 18 different languages were spoken there.  New Amsterdam was also the only free port in the region, which attracted visitors and settlers from the Americas and beyond who wanted to avoid tariffs.  The only other places in the New World at that time to promise religious freedom were Maryland and Rhode Island, neither of which ever reached that level of diversity; Maryland was mostly just a place for wealthy English Catholics to practice their religion without being bothered, and Rhode Island primarily served as a dumping ground for New Englanders who didn’t fit in with the Puritans of Massachusetts and Connecticut.  

Yet as outstandingly cosmopolitan as it was, New Amsterdam was still just a fur trading post in a remote corner of the world.  The Dutch have always liked to drink, and there was little else to do to pass the time in the North American wilderness.  There was roughly one tavern for every 20 people in New Amsterdam, ensuring that anybody could get a drink.  The majority of court cases in New Amsterdam were related to drunkenness in one way or another, whether it had to do with simple public drunkenness or a booze-fueled brawl that turned into a sword fight (yes, those happened quite a bit).  Even one of the colony’s first men of the cloth, Everardus Bogardus, was described as being seldom sober, and only got the funds to build a new church for the colony by convincing the its richest citizens to pledge money and building materials while they were blackout drunk.  New York’s drinking culture has remained alive and well in the past 390 years, facilitated in the modern era by a subway system that lets New Yorkers get home after a bender without having to get behind the wheel.

Now that we’ve looked at New York’s historic Dutch legacy, let’s look at the modern Santacon.  This is an event where people from throughout the New York Metropolitan area and beyond descend upon the five boroughs.  As one of the only free ports in the Western Hemisphere, New Amsterdam had a long history of attracting a diverse array of visitors from just about everywhere in the world.  The people who attend Santacon dress up, as the name implies, in Santa suits, honoring a tradition that’s delighted New Yorkers big and small since the Dutch brought it over 390 years ago.  And when these revelers get drunk, they’re honoring one of the oldest aspects of New York’s culture: its drinking culture.  It can be easy to hate on Santacon, and many complaints against it are completely valid (nobody wants a horde of red-and-white-clad fratboys drunkenly disrupting their Saturdays).  Yet even as you hate on it, it’s important to not forget the legacy to which it unwittingly pays homage.

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