SantaCon: From Anarchist Mob to Bro Holiday, A Case Study in Countercultural Erasure

SantaCon is today, folks. What started as a tentacle of San Francisco’s anarchist street theater is now a holiday for Bros and everyone else. What does this mean for subcultures, in general, or does it have no meaning at all?

SantaCon: From Anarchist Mob to Bro Holiday, A Case Study in Countercultural Erasure

As I aimlessly wandered through the Lower East Side, on my treasured psychogeographical perambulations, or on my dérive as the Situationists termed it, a red cloud drifted into my periphery. Groggy from a night of serious drinking, stomach aching from the residual convulsions of mulled wine, beer and bourbon, stewed in Pho broth and garlic paste, wondering when the gas build-up would commence, I had quite simply forgotten that it was December 10th.

SantaCon was here.

Those red hats. The artificial bellies and beards. Those bronzed blondes dressed as elves or in children’s pajamas. White, shiny teeth on All-American faces, congregating in red blobs around bars and streaming through the city’s arteries.

I thought about the pagan origins of Christmas; how the birth of Christ was superimposed on Saturnalia so as to not upset the heretical masses of Rome. And then I thought of the origins of SantaCon and my mind wound back toward recent subjects such as Emmett Grogan of the Diggers and the concept of the Free City; of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin of the Yippies; of each group’s various spawn. My mind then shifted to thoughts of Discordianism, Macalypse the Younger and Robert Anton Wilson and the idea that was Project Mindfuck.

If we trace SantaCon to its origins, it really begins with Discordianism on the one hand and Grogan and his friends and associates on the other. From the Diggers and the Free City grew the Free School Movement, a phenomenon of the late ’60s. We proceed thence to 1977 and the inception of The Suicide Club, a secret society that engaged in anarchist pranks, various forms of street theater and urban exploration (a type of psychogeography).

17 years after its founding, The Suicide Club inaugurated SantaCon on the streets of San Francisco. The Suicide Club would also spawn The Cacophony Society, of which “Fight Club” author Chuck Pahlanuik is a member. The event was imbued from the beginning with an anti-consumerist, anti-status quo flavor.

However, as with almost any counter-cultural specimen, SantaCon was co-opted by people outside the subculture(s) that incubated it. Surrealist and Dada works, created because of a revulsion with the dominant culture, can now be found in the mansions of millionaires and in the shrines that are museums. Works once deemed pornographic, such as James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” are now elevated to the status of literary classics.

And so, as I drifted through the streets, past hundreds upon hundreds of SantaCon participants, I was at once encouraged by such a popular embrace of what was anarchist, subversive culture, and equally disheartened when I overheard the conversation and saw the gesticulations of its participants.

You see, I was educated (more or less) at the fine school of University of Wisconsin-Madison, which is known for its rowdy, eternally-soused student population, but perhaps even more so for the variety of student there—that is, the pleasure-seeking, careerist, cum-depositing bro. (I wrote about UW in the article “Bonfire of the Vampire“.) And one can spot these folk long after they’ve left the hallowed halls of college for the workplace. And, though I had always harbored subversive interests (my family and teachers will vouchsafe this)—owing no doubt to an early introduction to Surrealism by way of the Pixies and David Lynch—at a university such as my alma mater, one was quite easily drawn into such mindless behavior. It involves a sort of controlled schizophrenia, which comes in hand later in life when one has to don a multitude of masks in various social situations.

Thus, my radar for SantaCon’s participants is keen, though it really does not demand too critical a gaze to conclude that the event has lost nearly all its anarchist and subversive ingredients.

But, does this matter? Should we care that it grew beyond its initial nexus?


SantaCon, quite simply, could not help itself. From the beginning, it had all the capacity of becoming viral because its symbol, Santa, is so pervasive a figure and such a powerful consumerist advertisement, that it was always going to penetrate the dominant culture.

And, yet, embedded within its appropriation into the upper reaches of public awareness, of the status quo, is the surrealist, anarchist, prankster fingerprints of everyone from Tristan Tzara, The Diggers and Guy Debord to the Discordians, Robert Anton Wilson and Thomas Pynchon.

As such, there is a reverse co-option at play that counteracts, though does not nullify, SantaCon’s cultural mainstreaming.

Nevertheless, it has certainly undergone a symbolic erasure along the way which has rendered it largely meaningless, not unlike New Year’s Eve. Then again, wasn’t that the point of SantaCon from the very beginning?

[Image via Gothamist]