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A tipsy Santa Claus is coming to town

Red-suited revellers descend on cities around the world
A man dressed as Santa gets an open container ticket at a previous SantaCon event in New York.

It's a meetup, it's a party, it's a spectacle: SantaCon is coming to town - in fact, to nearly 300 towns and cities around the world.

Maybe you've seen them in your neighbourhood: Dozens, sometimes hundreds of Santas ho, ho, ho-ing in and out of bars, stopping traffic and posing for photos. The red-suited, white-bearded revellers have gathered in 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.

"It's innocent fun," said Tim Mambort, 27, who's been taking part in Santa-Con in New York City for five years with friends from college. "You end up standing in a bar singing Jingle Bells with people you just met, all dressed like Santa, or walking with hundreds of Santas to Central Park, or filling up an entire subway car with Santas."

But whether SantaCon is naughty or nice depends on whom you ask.

The website for the New York City event, planned for Dec. 15, says SantaCon "is not a bar crawl. Every time you call it that, a sugarplum fairy dies."

But the fact is, most SantaCons involve stops at bars along a prescribed route, and over the years, there have been isolated reports of misbehaviour. In New York, police have issued summonses for violations of open container laws, and some bars refuse entry to anyone dressed in red. Last year, residents of Lower Manhattan complained of drunken Santas vomiting and urinating in the streets.

"There was one Santa lying on the ground and I saw a father go by with two young children and the little girl said, 'Daddy, what is wrong with Santa?"' said Community Board 1 member Paul Hovitz, who worries that the event encourages binge drinking and underage drinking.

Ian Sibley, who organizes the webpage, acknowledges that "a dark shadow seems to haunt the event. So we take the extra step of emphasizing not drinking too much and perhaps supporting a good cause."

Indeed, many SantaCons require participants to bring donations for food banks or Toys for Tots, or raise money for children's charities or no-kill pet shelters.

Sibley started five years ago with a half-dozen listings after "encountering this crazy thing with all these people dressed up like Santa" in Asheville, North Carolina. The website now lists nearly 275 events in 37 countries between November and January (Vancouver held its this past Saturday). Sibley says SantaCons have been held on every continent - from Africa to Australia and even Antarctica - but he dates the first events to the 1990s in Copenhagen and San Francisco. He says New York is one of the biggest, drawing 20,000 Santas.

Anna Sandler, a mom from Maplewood, New Jersey, thinks most participants take seriously the notion that SantaCon must not hurt Santa's image. Two years ago while pushing her toddler in a stroller in Manhattan, Sandler encountered "tons of Santas crossing the street and had no idea why. It was the most amazing spectacle." She stopped a few Santas to chat, then went home and looked the event up online.

"The Santas were completely hammered, but also completely polite," she said. "They were definitely following the SantaCon creed of being super-respectful."

Like zombie walks at Halloween, SantaCon is a grassroots phenomenon, organized locally and mostly through digital media, from email blasts and websites to Twitter and FourSquare. The term SantaCon may bring to mind Comic-Con, the pop culture convention, but there's no industry behind SantaCon, though a growth in sales of Santa suits led Party City to start advertising on in 2011.

"Our Santa suits have always sold to the Santa who dresses up at the mall or dad dressing up at home," said Melissa Sprich, Party City's vice-president of costumes and accessories. "But we started to see an increase in sales and were hearing that local events were occurring with people dressing up for this SantaCon thing."

Most SantaCons stress that they are not for kids, and Sibley says that's part of the appeal.

"The holidays tend to be family oriented and adults get squat," Sibley said. "They work hard all year and extra hard over the holidays. So when you get a costume on like Santa, the pressures of the real world are lifted. You have this strange camaraderie because everyone is dressed like you."