Against NYC’s merry ole SantaCon, a rising humbug

A growing backlash against SantaCon, an annual flash mob of thousands of drunken revelers in red costumes and white beards on a pub crawl across New York City, has prompted the organizers to hire a civil-rights lawyer.

The loosely organized group, which through social media attracted 30,000 participants last year, has hired attorney Norman Siegel, former chief counsel for the New York Civil Liberties Union, to ensure its right to drink and make merry isn’t thwarted by police and hostile residents. Opponents object to the public urination and vomiting that has characterized similar gatherings in previous holiday seasons.

“They appear to be sincere, but not too informed, about the do’s and don’ts of the First Amendment,” said Siegel, who intends to join the group on its Dec. 13 parade. “You can’t take the whole sidewalk or go in the street or you can get arrested.”

For the second straight year, concern about the hordes of St. Nicholas lookalikes caused the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to ban beer, wine and liquor from its usually alcohol- tolerant commuter trains serving Long Island and New York’s northern suburbs. Last year, MTA police stood guard at Grand Central Terminal to enforce the prohibition, and some boarded trains at stations on the way, ready to issue summonses punishable by $50 fines or 30 days in jail.

SantaCon, which began in San Francisco in 1994, has grown into a global event, with gatherings planned in hundreds of cities, including Toronto, Beijing, Ho Chi Minh City, Munich and Tel Aviv.

In New York, revelers have been known to hit Bushwick, Brooklyn, where this year residents have posted “keep out” signs hoping to ward off the effects of SantaCon. City Council member Rafael Espinal asked bars and restaurants in the neighborhood to keep them out.

“I understand the original idea of SantaCon was to celebrate the holiday spirit by raising money for charities and supporting local business owners, but over the years it has grown out of control and left participating neighborhoods in shambles,” Espinal wrote in a statement to his constituents last month.

The group has yet to announce the start and finishing points of its 2014 mega pub crawl. Siegel said the group intends to congregate in mid-Manhattan. At least one community board on the Lower East Side has already announced its opposition, the Gothamist website reported Wednesday.

“They have a right to express their views, pro-Christmas or anti-Christmas, wear their costumes; the content of their message cannot be censored,” Siegel said.

Siegel last month represented nurse Kaci Hickox in her successful fight to leave a quarantine imposed upon her by the governors of New York and New Jersey after she arrived in the U.S. from Africa, where she had cared for Ebola-stricken patients.

He said it’s too late to help the group obtain a police permit to congregate in midtown Manhattan, as it intends to do, so it will have to observe the rules against blocking sidewalks or traffic, the lawyer said. If all goes well, he'll apply for the group to obtain a march permit for next year, he said.

“We'll see,” Siegel said.