When you picture SantaCon, it's best to avoid conjuring an image of mall Santas trading tips on how to avoid beard-tuggers or engaging in a “Ho Ho Ho!” competition. SantaCon is much more of a spectacle and these Santas are — how shall we say it? — much less traditional.
On Saturday night in Omaha, Elvis Santa caroused with a Christmas tree while Jesus, Mary and Joseph drank beers with a group of imbibing Christmas presents. Nearby, reindeer played pool near velour tracksuit Santa. It was all in the name of having a good time and drinking a few beers and other adult beverages — for some people, quite a few.
SantaCon is, at its heart, an old-fashioned pub crawl with one major difference: Participants are required to dress as Santa Claus or, at least, as something Christmas-themed.
Santas participating in SantaCon have visited Trafalgar Square in London and Tiananmen Square in Beijing. They've walked across the Brooklyn Bridge. And this past weekend in Los Angeles, they visited the space shuttle en masse at the California Science Center.
The event traces its origins to Copenhagen and San Francisco and is held on different days near Christmas. The official SantaCon website lists 276 events in 37 countries. One of the biggest is in New York, and it draws as many as 20,000 Santas.
Joe McNally, 29, grew up in Omaha, but now lives in New York, where he participated in SantaCon several years ago. Three years ago, he decided to host a similar event in Omaha, traveling with about 20 friends up and down Leavenworth Street to visit bars.
In 2011, the troupe of Santas expanded to about 50 people who took photos and stopped traffic in the Old Market. This year, they returned to Leavenworth Street bars, starting with Alderman's Bar at 32nd Street and heading west.
Though Omaha's event is a bar crawl, not all SantaCons take place only at taverns. Many visit parks and attractions and have family-friendly elements, although most have bars and taverns on their list.
Organizers of Omaha's event hope to expand to more people and more places. Next year, they want to include a canned food drive and make it more of a charitable exercise than a drinking party.
At Alderman's, Santas and other assorted Christmas figures started filing in at 7 p.m. Most were dressed as the jolly old elf in some fashion or another — hustler Santa, Elvis Santa, Santa in a smoking jacket and lots of regular clothes topped off with a Santa hat.
McNally and fellow organizer Joe Feregrino, 29, were dressed as Joseph and Jesus. Their friend Paige Campbell, 24, was dressed as Mary.
Many who attended were friends of the organizers and hailed from Omaha. A few were from Lincoln, but Campbell came all the way from Winston-Salem, N.C. When McNally told her about it, she suggested going as the holy family.
Was traveling hundreds of miles for SantaCon worth it?
“Absolutely,” she said. “We're drinking beer out of a mason jar. I feel right at home.”
Jennifer Baumann, 38, and Jennie Ellingson, 30, were dressed as the leg lamp and the fragile box from “A Christmas Story.” A lot of people got a kick out of their costumes, which they fashioned out of cardboard, paint and fabric earlier in the day.
Later, as Ellingson rushed to the ATM, she cracked: “The leg lamp is broke!”
Josh Nix, 26, of Lincoln, and his friend Adam Price, 26, of Omaha, also had a tandem costume. One wore a big cardboard peanut and the other wore a big cardboard cracker box. Together, they were a nutcracker. (Get it? One was a nut and the other was crackers.)
“Not everyone quite gets it,” Nix said. “It takes them a while to think about it.”
When SantaCon visited bars such as VFW Post 247, Marylebone and the Recovery Room, many of the regulars moved out of the way. Some thought it was amusing and took pictures. Others shot some odd looks toward the red-and-white-clad people invading their favorite bars.
A trio of women walked into Alderman's and couldn't stop laughing. They almost left before one Santa welcomed them and showed them to a section of the pub that the Santas hadn't taken over.
Judy Rose, a patron of Alderman's for 50 years, got a kick out of seeing all the Santas and their pals. She laughed at the costumes but wasn't surprised to see them.
“At Alderman's, you never know what you're gonna see,” she said.
As SantaCon moved on to the VFW and the Marylebone, more Santas joined in. At every bar, as the band of roving St. Nicks stopped in, someone put “All I Want For Christmas is You” by Mariah Carey on the jukebox.
Elvis Santa — known to his friends as J.J. Feregrino, 37 — hung out at the bar with his wife, Lindsey, 30. Feregrino, organizer Joe Feregrino's brother, has been attending Omaha's SantaCon for a couple years and enjoys the event.
“It's an ever-evolving thing,” Feregrino said. “It's so fun.”
Carrie Lokonon of Omaha and her husband, Lcas, wore simple costumes — her in a red dress and him in a Santa Claus T-shirt and both in Santa hats — but they were enjoying themselves.
“We're not even big drinkers,” Lokonon said. “We came out anyway. It's so much fun!”
This report contains material from the Associated Press.
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