SantaCon is Coming to Town

   Nothing says happy holidays like a trip to the mall. Drooping garlands swaying to a decaying cassette player, bleary-eyed consumers everywhere, holiday spirit in the air; the most wonderful time of the year. In between stops and swipes, a child’s will and insistence drags his family onto a different kind of line, to a path striped with candy canes straight to the North Pole. Each step leaves an imprint in plastic snow, all leading toward the big man at the end. For every child, this time is the most important part of the holidays, the moment to speak face-to-face, man-to-man, with Santa Claus himself.
   The Mall Santa does not appear to a kid as just another minimum wage impostor. Even Jews flock to this icon for a moment on Santa’s lap (I know from personal experience). To someone with baby teeth, regardless of this man’s height, weight, skin color, odor, he is one of a kind, the imagination realized and rationalized.
   So what happens when this youthful exuberance grows up, gains a belly of its own, and looks for something new to brighten the holidays behind a tidal wave of credit card bills and spoiled eggnog? Sitting on Santa’s lap is a no-no once you have student loans under your belt. To bring out the holiday spirit in this crowd, you’ve got to introduce alcohol, drive up the sex, and mash it all together into an event that Santa would not be proud to sponsor.

*

   The first step in attending a Santa Claus convention: Find a suit. A quick search online brings the cheapest set of suit, beard, and hat to around 35 dollars. On top of this order, I throw in a few other presents for my family, since the holidays are about giving, not receiving. Also, free shipping.
   Running late the morning of the event, I try on the costume for the first time. As I pull the pants up, it appears 35 dollars buys itchy polyester and extreme vanity sizing. With no time to change, I hop out of the house carrying the rest of the costume, and race away in a Honda sleigh.
   The steering wheel glides under my polyester gloves, realigning the vehicle while shooting my hat into the passenger seat. It falls into a pile of synthetic flannel, a crumpled assortment thrown on top of a faded Thomas Guide and a half-eaten bag of Reese’s Pieces. My hand reaches into the glob of red clothing, pulling out a warped belt, gas money, and more Reese’s Pieces before turning its attention to the radio dial and raising the volume to drown out my own rendition of “Feliz Navidad.”
   By the time Rudolph makes his way onto the radio, I reach my first destination and unlock the child lock on my mother’s car to welcome friend number one. It has been months since we’ve seen each other, so we exchange the usual pleasantries while driving to friend number two’s house: how’s school, nice weather today, still no girlfriend; nothing unexpected, until I shoot a glance at his sorry Santa hat and ask, “Where’s your costume?”
   He says no one is going to have a costume, to which I point at my red sweatpants, white gloves, and the rest of the Santa suit beneath his rear end. When we pull up to friend two’s house, three honks drag him out the front door, with only a splash of red on his head to brighten up his faded jeans and field jacket. For the purposes of our holiday excursion, let’s call these two friends Buddy and Ralphie.
   Once we reach cruising altitude on the carpool lane and the carols die down to “Silent Night,” Buddy reaches around his seat and pulls out the bag of candy. He offers the bag to Ralphie before placing it on the pile of clothes. Until thirty minutes ago this pile sat in an Amazon Prime box waiting for the opportunity to be ripped open like a present on Christmas morning. It sits once again, folded, but incomplete without the liberally sized pants now draped across my thighs. Rather than complete the look for myself, splitting the costume three ways seems to be the most utilitarian option, which the passengers agree to with a nod.
   “What is this again?”
   I glance over my glasses into the rearview mirror.
   “It’s an X-rated Santa convention.” At least that’s the paraphrased answer I pitched over text message last night.
   Once they realize that itching cloth will soon be draped across their backs too, the holiday spirit drains from their eyes and exits their mouths in groans. From the passenger seat, Buddy eyes his future outfit without confidence. Reaching between his legs, I grab the oversized buttoned-down top and launch it at his head.
   “Merry Christmas.”

*

   Attending SantaCon requires no invitation or press pass, just a costume and a wallet to keep pace with your stomach. Beginning with a local gathering of the San Francisco Cacophony Society (known for “experiences beyond the mainstream”), SantaCon has since spread holiday cheer to over 321 cities in 44 countries around the globe. Through a coordinating website and word of mouth, the gathering adds new cities each year, crawling between locations during the holiday season. When the calendar flips to December, SantaCons pop up daily, with the majority scheduling their gathering of Santas on a work-friendly Saturday afternoon. Today’s festivities lie on the Saturday before Christmas, celebrating Santa’s return with an hour-long drive from the heart of Los Angeles to the coastal town of Long Beach.
   From the hours of two to three in the afternoon, Kelly Clarkson’s Holiday Hits fill the vehicle before the freeway ends in palm trees and a soft breeze. A few twists and turns through a neighborhood of hedges shepherds us to a strip of pubs and small-town shops. Here, neon signs invite us to holiday deals and happy hours. Five minutes along this commercial road ends with a painted sign, which along with the GPS announces you have arrived at your destination. Behind the welcome banner congregates a horde of Santas, each with at least one red article of clothing, and most with a full snow-white beard.
   Even with sweat beading under their beards, each Santa remains in costume and character. Over the roaring laughter on this street corner, the shopping bystanders and driving rubberneckers seem imposing and out of place. A honk from behind reminds us to mind our place in line, but the following ho ho ho blurs it once again.
   Parking takes 15 minutes, five to find a spot on a one-way street, ten to parallel park. Exiting the vehicle proves to be a greater challenge, as my pants tumble down and pool around my brown boots. What a day to wear green boxers.
   “Let’s see what Santa brought this year.”
   Without a workshop to produce presents, I turn to the contents of the vehicle to dole out gifts. For Buddy, the top half of the costume looks about the right size, fitting snugly over his black hoodie. A full beard and head of white hair should work for Ralphie, who ends up hiding his childish face behind polyester whiskers. “It itches,” he says. “And tastes like plastic.”
   With the costume spread between the three of us, we walk down the block as three Santa Clauses. At the corner I tighten the belt to the smallest setting, but the pants continue to sag with each step. On the other side of the block, a piercing whistle whirls us around to see one of our hats alone in the crosswalk. We each run our fingers through our hair, and Ralphie discovers his error and runs back through traffic to pick it up.
   Twenty steps bring us to stop number one, where the identical costumes transform into individual homage. Held together by their identical exteriors, each attendee brings his own take on the suit to today’s festivities. Before we can further examine the differences in fit and take a look under each beard, a man stumbles into our path and sticks out his hand.
   “Welcome to SantaCon,” he says, “I’m not the official greeter but I guess since no one’s doing it, it’s officially my job now, right?”
   He waits for us to respond, swaying and exhaling thick, wet breaths. Without a red suit, his black costume seems out of place, until he lurches forward and bobs his hat, bowing the toothy smile of Jack Skellington perched atop his head. Nightmare Before Christmas, the first riff on the theme.
   “Thanks for noticing. Why don’t you all go on inside and have a drink. Welcome to SantaCon!”
   A silence sinks into our conversation. Surrounded by chatter in every direction, we make the move toward the bar while the unofficial greeter stares at the spot we just left.

*

   Each SantaCon coordinates the event in a different manner, and light national oversight gives the local chapters free reign in determining the course of the day. A quick view at the itineraries online reveals a heavy emphasis on pub crawls, progressing from bar to bar each hour until the carols lose their tune, along with Santa’s dignity. Some lucky and larger conventions begin with a parade, but most end up devolving along the same liquor-ridden path. The Long Beach SantaCon falls into this larger group.
   The path into the bar is packed with other Santas, so we slide by them, past the glass façade into a quiet table by the bar. With only two seats, I grab the first one, and ask Ralphie to “come sit on Santa’s lap.” He does, for ten seconds, then hops up and leans against the window next to a table of elves. Instead of bringing them into the conversation, he stares over their heads outside, where Jack Skellington welcomes the Grinch to the festivities.
   Gazing out the window draws the waitress’s attention, who bounces over to hand us three menus before carols at the other end of the bar summon her away. Instead of deciding between a heart attack in a bun or in a taco shell, we look at the same person spread throughout the crowd over and over again. Each conversation, unique to the Santas involved, blends into one roar.
   “So what’ll it be, boys.”
   I flip through the menu once more, pause for a moment over the nachos, before slamming it shut and asking for water. We all ask for water.
   The silence she leaves behind fills with the sound of screeching chairs and shuffling feet, accompanied by the sight of Santas flowing out the front door. Ten feet out the door, ten feet to the right, and they arrive at the next destination and push their way inside.
   In the wake of the migration, other customers emerge from the shadows, and follow their own, unique trajectory back to the bar. The only similarity between these men and the Santas is their facial hair, except these beards are attached by wrinkles, not glue. Between their spots in the back and places at the bar, the football broadcast stays on the same channel, but for the first time we can hear that the Trojans are up by three touchdowns. A silver and black Santa storms in with a Raider’s bobble-head dangling from his cap, and seats himself with the regulars.
   Five more minutes of looking and two more inquiries lead us to vacate our seats and follow the exodus out the front door. Outside the establishment, Santas continue to converse over paper bags, sipping from these containers during lulls in the conversation. The entrance to the next bar resembles the Berlin Wall. Outside we wait our turn, but only so many Santas can fit through one chimney before it closes off for good.
   Motioned behind a velvet rope, we fill the front of the line while others file in behind us. Two girls in red short shorts walk by when a cab rolls up to the curb and spills out a pile of Santa Clauses. Behind this crowd arrives an elf in a green body suit. Between his legs hang a stocking and two tiny jingle bells.
   With no sign the line will lead anywhere any time soon, we vacate our spots behind the rope, and run back into Jack.
   “Welcome to SantaCon!”
   Rather than engage him a second time, my hand shoots out and grabs the photographer, asking him to take a picture of our group. Pictures from SantaCons around the globe can be found online to either relive or live the moment. Most pictures accumulate through a collage of shaky camera shots, but the DSLR attached at the wrist to today’s photographer will hopefully lead to clearer memories.
   Eager to commemorate the day, our photographer guides us to the proper lighting, and I trade my camera for a pose. Three clicks of the camera, followed by a pause as we wait for the electronic shutter on my phone to release us from stretched smiles. These sounds never arrive, and when the phone returns to my hand, the pictures do not. It seems that touch screens are not compatible with Santa’s gloves.
   Once again, we ask Santa for a picture for Christmas, and he obliges with the same smile, removing his gloves and snapping three memories. This time my phone captures the memories, along with an oil smudge across the home button.
   I turn to my left and reenter the original pub, filling the same table as before. Now the table is empty, except for three thin circles of water. This time Ralphie sits on my lap without me asking, so I shove him off into the window.
   A new waitress walks by and offers us drinks, but all three Santas just ask for water.
   “Drink all that water and you’ll have to pee, and have you ever tried peeing in a Santa suit?”
   This comment swivels our attention to the bar, where the last Santa standing pushes off his stool and makes his way toward us. He sways a bit, just enough to crunch the can inside the brown paper bag in his left hand.
   “Hello Santa.”
   “Hello, Santa,” we say.
   “So why isn’t Santa drinking?”
   “Santa is in college,” I say.
   “Did Santa forget his presents at the North Pole?”
   “Santa’s workshop is a bit short on funds.”
   “Even Santa needs a gift during the holidays,” he says, lifting up his can and drawing a long sip.
   The conversation continues, and the only information we gain from this man comes from his red, velvet uniform. No personal information, no authenticity, just anonymity behind Santa’s fraying whiskers.
   “Did you know there were over 400 Santas last week in Eagle Rock?”
   I did not know that. Eagle Rock would have been much more convenient, only a 15-minute drive. We could have even stopped on the way and bought another costume.
   “I think there’s at least 80 of us here tonight,” he adds, “are you guys sure you don’t want beers? Santas don’t let other Santas not drink.”
   Again, we refuse, placing the blame on Santa’s preference for milk over alcohol. Sandwich Bag Santa bids us adieu with three high fives and a ho ho ho before venturing onto the patio to socialize with more short shorts Santas. This time their shorts are different colors, but at least their hats are all red.

*

   A quick look at the SantaCon website brings up today’s schedule, which leaves us 35 minutes to kill before attempting pub number three. The options at this point include round three at bar number one, round two in bar two’s line, or another store along the boulevard. We take our chances with the final option, moving out and perusing the shops along the street.
   This path leads nowhere, until a globe of gumballs draws us into a bike shop. Inside, the chessboard flooring draws our attention to the second level, where bikes shrink to skateboards and neon helmets lose their padding. Whimsy bleeds onto the wheels, whose marbled foundation spins round and round to make solid colors. The floor plan leaves room for one of us to go for a spin, and Ralphie seizes the opportunity to be the first skating Santa. That is, until a glare from the upper management ends his reign.
   Now with ten minutes left before five o’clock, the skateboards return to their racks, and the door sensor announces our exit from the store. Along the way to our destination a hat tumbles again into the crosswalk. This time Ralphie turns around and grabs it before a car does.
   On the other side of the block, groups of dancing Santas cross our path and flamenco into a random bar. A double-checking of the itinerary labels this location as stop number five, which, when coupled with the volume of their entrance, pushes them much further into the evening than planned.
   More Santas flood the streets, turning our walk into an upstream trek. By the time we pass the original pub, the regulars’ whispering are the only signs of Santa’s presence. The silence around these men sole into the street, only to be interrupted as a belly falls out of the second establishment and shouts “SantaCon.” He watches us for a response, shouts “SantaCon” one more time, before hobbling away toward our destination. Rather than follow him, we find we are all suddenly tired, and agree to call it a day. The boulevard takes us away from the shops and back to the car. With each step the beach crashes closer to our feet, pulling us out to the water, and rather than stop at home base, we continue down the sidewalk toward the setting sun, passing sand-caked pedestrians returning from a sun-tanned day. To answer their sideways glances, we shout “Merry Christmas.”
   The targets of these outbursts fall behind our quick pace, but never fail to respond without a smile. After delivering our well wishes to a real life Mr. and Mrs. Claus, someone accosts us from a second-story balcony. Turning up to face the source of this outburst brings us face-to-face with a six-year-old elf, who shouts “Merry Christmas, Santa” before running into the recesses of her home. At the end of the block, the street opens onto Pacific Coast Highway, where only a row of palm trees and traffic separate us from the beach.
   We wait on the side of the freeway until proper timing propels us across the street. We hop the knee-high wall and sink into the ground.
   Still a long ways from the water, a bike path leads us on a course that slopes to the coastline. We flow in the opposite direction of traffic, looking each passerby in the eye as we bring holiday cheer along the coast.

*

   I couldn’t sleep the night before SantaCon. It was like the night before Christmas, except the only creature stirring was tossing and turning in bed.
   Around the world, other Santas begin and end their night according to their choosing. In Birmingham, a parade dumps the inaugural convention of Alabama into their first bar, while the Santas in Buffalo slide along the snow-covered sidewalk between locations. Eugene follows a similar, shaky path as Long Beach. Shanghai rests for the night, having already completed the day’s trials with minimal arrests. Here, we sit on the damp sand, just beyond the tide, and sing “Jingle Bells.”