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SantaCon 2023 brings classy, commando and Chicano St. Nicks to San Francisco

A bar full of patrons dressed as Santa Claus.
Santas drink at Sam’s Cable Car Lounge on Powell Street during SantaCon. | Source: Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

I’ve never been to SantaCon and never thought I would.

Yet, when approached with the opportunity to see firsthand how the debauchery would unfold, I jumped at the chance to walk San Francisco's streets among those dressed as one of winter’s most recognizable mythological characters.

San Francisco is a city that is known for its pageantry. Whether it is Pride weekend or Dia de los Muertos, the city is filled with those ready to fully entrench themselves in a cause that calls for drinking and festivities.

As a reporter, I aimed to delve into Saturday’s event and bought a less-than-$20 costume that made it hard for the assigned photographer to keep track of me, lost as I was in a sea of Santas, like a jolly old game of Where's Waldo?

A man in a Santa hat and fake white beard talks to patrons at a bar.
Joel Umanzor talks to patrons at Sam’s Cable Car Lounge on Powell Street, which saw a mad rush of Santas for the annual SantaCon on Saturday. | Source: Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

The event, which includes a toy drive and a bar crawl, started around noon at Union Square. As I got to the area, I saw other members of my Santa tribe taking pictures and posing around the square’s Christmas tree and Hanukkah menorah.

I didn’t see any puking young adults or fights. In previous years, the event has come under scrutiny for devolving from nice to naughty and giving way to mischievous behavior.

At bars gearing up for the event, bartenders said they wouldn’t put up with naughty activities at this year’s edition.

READ MORE: San Francisco Bars Gear Up For SantaCon, Issue Warning For Unruly Drinkers

My first impression of SantaCon was how many interpretations there were of ol’ Saint Nicholas. 

Speaking with classy Santa Jim Reilly—who dressed in a sparkly chrome blazer and red Santa hat—I learned how the event has grown since its inception in 1994 by the Cacophony Society.

A man in a Santa hat and silver-sequined blazer gesticulates while he talks.
Jim Reilly talks to strangers in Union Square during SantaCon. | Source: Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

“This is probably my 12th time here,” he said, adding that organizers anticipated about 5,000 participants.

Reilly said he dons a different outfit each year. This time, he felt he wanted to go the “classy Santa” route.

“I usually mix it up,” he said. “I woke up, opened my closet and put on what spoke to me.”

In addition to Reilly's classy Santa, I got a glimpse of a Commando Santa dressed in camouflage and a rare Frosty the Snowman sighting.

A woman wearing a racy Santa outfit sits on the lap of a man dressed as Santa Claus.
Ashley Sepulveda sits on Santa’s lap at one of the San Francisco Fire Department's donation reception locations in Union Square. | Source: Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

I asked Reilly what he would advise for a first-time SantaConner like myself, and he recommended venturing along the Tenderloin to Polk Street route for the younger crowd or the less-frenetic Chinatown-to-North Beach route.

“I, personally, am going to go to North Beach,” he said. “It isn’t as hectic over that way.”

From Union Square, I headed to Sam’s Cable Car Lounge a block away, where a throng of Santa Clauses downed wine, spirits and beers in cramped quarters.

Darren Gould, a Santa who drank with a group of friends at Sam’s, said this marked his second time attending the event.

An overhead view of the Christmas tree and Chanukah menorah in Union Square during SantaCon.
SantaCon attendees pack Union Square in San Francisco on Saturday. | Source: Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

“Last year, we kind of stumbled on it,” Gould said. “This year, we all decided we were going to come out this way from Sonoma County.”

Coming specifically for the festivities and drinks, Gould was ready to have a good time but didn’t know where to go during SantaCon. This reporter was able to point him in the right direction and send him and his group to Polk Street.

READ MORE: San Francisco Krampus Pageant Celebrates the Christmas Devil of Pagan Lore

Rory Coyne, bartender at McTeague’s Saloon on Polk, said Polk is one of the main arteries for SantaCon and that bars in the area are usually part of the Santas’ routes.

“We’re up there with the biggest SantaCon bars in the city,” Coyne said. “Polk Street always gets really busy.”

A bartender pours two bottles of liquor into a red plastic cup.
Bartender Roxane French makes drinks at Sam’s Cable Car Lounge during SantaCon on Saturday. | Source: Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

As I headed out to Polk Street, it was pretty evident which bars were “Santa-friendly” and which were not. 

I stepped inside Providence and got myself a beer with relative ease, while down the street at McTeague's, Santas lined up around the block to get inside.

Walter Carbaugh, who dressed as Chicano Santa fully wrapped in a colorful poncho, said he was celebrating his recovery from cancer by bar-hopping with his wife.

Patrons wearing Santa outfits enjoy drinks at a bar.
Avery Sloane, Taylor Brickson, Darren Grenwich and Nic Farro drink at Sam’s Cable Car Lounge on Powell Street during SantaCon. | Source: Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

“This event is pretty dope,” Carbaugh said while standing outside McTeague's. “Listen, I just got over beating pancreatic cancer, and it's my first time really drinking in San Francisco since my diagnosis.”

As he followed his wife into McTeague's, I appreciated watching someone follow the Santa path with such zest for life.

I don’t know if I’ll ever go to SantaCon again, but I’m happy my day didn’t include any coal-worthy activity.

Joel Umanzor can be reached at jumanzor@sfstandard.com