December 5th, 2005

Black Rock City

100 Drunken Santas

So this coming Saturday, December 10th, is Santarchy here in St. Louis. I'm really looking forward to it. I've been meaning to mention that I'm really looking forward to it, but I'm having a hard time explaining exactly why I'm really looking forward to it. So let me start with the "what" it is, and then wrestle with the "why" in a minute.

Have you ever heard of a surrealist/Discordian performance art group called the San Francisco Cacophony Society, and their close relation, the Seattle Cacophony Society? Their basic gig is to come up with recurring flash-mob-like public events. They recruit a dozen or so people to show up at a specific place, in specifically themed costumes, to do something really incomprehensible ... as if it were perfectly normal. It's almost as if they were inventing holidays as an art form. Then, if it was successful, they do it again next year, and so on. For example, I've read that their inaugural event was/is the Formal Sewer Tour. They gather a group together at a known time, at a last-minute-announced maintenance access cover which somebody pops with a crowbar, and then take their formally attired guests on a (pre-planned) tour of the storm sewer system and/or the steam tunnels under the city. Most Cacophony Society events seem to be designed primarily to attract double-takes, to seem to those who aren't in on the joke as if it were completely incoherent and completely inobvious as to why anybody would do whatever it is that group over there is doing, the way that other people's or other cultures' holidays would look.

Santarchy is one of theirs, originally, but the success has run way, way out ahead of them. It started with a simple, surreal premise: "No force on Earth can stop a hundred drunken Santas." It's a combination of all-day pub crawl and parade. To participate, you costume as if you had just stepped out of a shopping mall Santa's Village display, or in a recognizable parody of such a winter holiday costume. If you look bedraggled, cheap, homeless, disreputable, or sleazy in it, all the better. You show up at whichever bar they're all at (for the time that you join them, ideally at the very first bar) and hike/bus ride/parade from bar to bar, public venue to public venue, getting more and more sloppily drunk until the last bar gets hit late in the night. Why? Because as Santa, you can get away with it. It has been their observation that if you're dressed as Santa Claus, people put up with an awful lot of weird and/or public behavior that they'd otherwise class as anti-social or mildly disgusting. (For example, I gather that last year they accidentally crashed a hotel wedding reception, and got away with it cold.) It has also been their observation that the more Father Christmases, Santa Clauses, Mrs. Clauses, Christmas Elves, and Sexy Santa's Helpers they can get together in one place and have them all try to get away with enthusiastic and sloppy public drunkenness, the more that people not only tolerate it (which might suggest that they felt intimidated) but actually start encouraging it, start playing along. If you get 10 or 20 or 30 drunken Santas in one place, then as long as they don't wear out their welcome (hence the pub crawl), they actually set the norm for the behavior where they're at. People treat it, I'm told, as if it were a normal part of the holiday, as if it were part of the public holiday fun that everybody looks forward to every year.

Now, of course I love the idea of public performance art in costume. You all know that about me by now. And I love holiday kitsch, whether I'm wallowing in it or parodying it. I'm not ordinarily one to hang out in bars, but bars strike me as perfectly good places to meet with groups of people if you're all meeting there at the same scheduled time. And it doesn't hurt that I'm told by my friend who cued me into the local Santarchy mailing list that the local St. Louis Santarchy group is for all practical purposes the same group as the St. Louis area's Burning Man veterans' group. (This makes more sense than you'd think. The first ever performance-art themed camping area at Burning Man was Christmas Camp.) Also, the part of me that is fascinated by "the rules" of human social interaction is fascinated by exceptions; I'm curious just where the boundaries of tolerance are, and this "Santa Claus exception" theory is something I've never seen before in person, only read about.

Although I've mostly outgrown the behavior, there's still some young punk left in me that loves freaking the mundanes. (I wish I could find the old science fiction fannish words to this filk, I haven't seen them in years.) There's also the appeal that while it's been going on for 12 years on the left coast, it's only been in St. Louis for a couple of years; who knows how long this will last, and I want to be able to say years later that yeah, I did that, it was (or wasn't) a lot of fun. Nor does it disincline me to attend that the person who invited me is red-hot sexy babe-alicious. Nor does it do anything to disincline me that I've had my own personal reminders over the years that an astonishing number of young, and cute, and especially rich women have a Santa Claus fetish. I've wanted to own a Santa suit for a while anyway.

I realize that I'm probably not making this sound like a lot of fun or very attractive. So I'm at a loss as to how to explain to you any more clearly why I've been wanting to do this for years, and am really looking forward to it. If you do want to join us, a complete cheap Santa Suit can probably be had for around $50 at any costume, party-supply, or carnival supply store; the bare minimum, a Santa hat and a caroler's scarf, can be had for a couple of bucks at Walgreens or Garden Ridge or almost anywhere. To check the schedule, sign up for the St. Louis Santarchy email list on Yahoo Groups, then check message #192 or the text file version of the schedule. The short version is that it starts in University City at noon, hits the Central West End around 3:00pm, Union Station around 5:00pm, Washington Avenue around 7:00pm, and Soulard around 10:00pm, winding up there some time after midnight. (Yes, that means that some of the participants will have been drinking for thirteen straight hours. Plan accordingly.)

(Yes, I know, the 10th is the day that everybody and his dog is scheduling their holiday events. That strikes me as painfully ironic, because the reason the local Santarchists picked the 10th was that they assumed that everybody and their dogs would be scheduling all of their holiday events for the 17th.)

Personally, I am profoundly unlikely to even be out of the house by noon; I hardly ever am. I'd prefer to start my Saturday by heading to the Polymunch at Cici's Pizza in Rock Hill at 2:00pm for breakfest, and I'm even more tempted to do so if somebody offers me a ride (hint, hint), so I only have to pay for two cab fares that day, not three. I'll probably join the Santarchists around 5:00pm at Union Station.