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San Francisco bars gear up for SantaCon, issue warning for unruly drinkers

A Dec. 10, 2009 photo showing a San Francisco Police officer giving a man dressed as Santa Claus an open container ticket during the Santacon pub crawl in Downtown San Francisco. | Russel A. Daniels/AP Photo
A San Francisco cop issues an open-container ticket to a man dressed as Santa Claus during the 2009 SantaCon. | Source: AP

As SantaCon 2023 gets ready to unleash a fury of red-and-white revelers on San Francisco streets, some bars around the city in preparation for a Santa-filled Saturday are warning potential partygoers that they better be more nice than naughty.

The annual bar crawl—which has drawn thousands of Santa-inspired costumes to Union Square since its inception in 1994—elicits feelings of either excitement or dread across the city, depending on who you ask.

The main corridors for the event are usually centered on Union Square and venture out to various bars and pubs along Polk Street, the Marina, parts of the Mission District, Market Street and North Beach.

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The event is slated to begin at noon in Union Square, according to the SantaCon website.

For Nathan McDaniel, a bartender at Zeitgeist Beer Garden at 199 Valencia St. for the past 17 years, the annual invasion of Santas usually seems to pop up on him unexpectedly.

This year, McDaniel was reminded of SantaCon when this reporter asked him on Friday if Zeitgeist was preparing for the event.

“I always completely forget, and then someone reminds me, ‘Hey, SantaCon is tomorrow.’ Then I’m like, ‘Shit!’” he told The Standard, while laughing. “Unprepared, but I’m ready to rock.”

One of the problems that happen every year when SantaCon attendees come, McDaniel said, is that they will often try and sneak in outside alcohol. Over time, it has led to Zeitgeist adopting stringent rules at the door, he added.

“We are sticklers at the door,” McDaniel said. “It is, basically, if one person comes in, and we catch outside alcohol, we kick the entire mass out. We give them a chance every year. We always give them a chance.”

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All of the bars that spoke to The Standard Friday afternoon said that, although they aren’t turning away patrons dressed up as jolly St. Nicholas, they will make sure Saturday is enjoyable for everyone—not just those in Santa outfits.

Dzu Nguyen, general manager of Horsefeather on Divisadero Street, said the location has usually avoided the craziness associated with SantaCon in previous years.

“We’ve had experiences in the past of people coming in, real rowdy,” he said, recalling years when ugly sweater-wearing Santa Clauses came through shotgunning beers. “We’re never necessarily saying, ‘If you’re dressed as a Santa, get out.’ We are really approaching it like, ‘If you are dressed as Santa, great—but you gotta behave.’”

Ultimately, Nguyen said, the combination of the Christmas spirit, Santa-fueled excitement and alcohol sometimes negatively affect restaurants and bars.

“When this aspect of the Santas and the drinking and excitement pervades the neighborhood the way it does, it doesn’t necessarily do well for business as a whole,” he added. 

Contrary to Nguyen, Rory Coyne—bartender at McTeague's Saloon on Polk Street—doesn’t see the Santas as hurtful to bars in the area and said the event at McTeague's is usually a hot spot for Santa activity.

“It gets really busy, but it is good business—they are all pretty polite,” Coyne said. “We are kind of the first spot and always get a huge crowd from 10:30 a.m. till we close.”

Joel Umanzor can be reached at jumanzor@sfstandard.com