For the eight years I lived in New York, the word “SantaCon” would make my blood run colder than the December air itself. Along with the Puerto Rican Day Parade and the president’s motorcade driving crosstown, it is one of the few events guaranteed to disrupt a significant section of Manhattan’s usual bustle. Ranging from midtown to the Lower East Side, a veritable army of wasted bros in Santa Claus jumpers roam between whichever bars will tolerate their presence, vying to be the first to puke on a woman dressed as a sexy elf. It’s the total and exact opposite of Miracle on 34th Street.
SantaCon has a long, tangled history, and it takes place in cities around the country. The New York version is characterized, however, by a commute. While the judgmental locals have little interest in the Christmas-themed shitshow and prefer to binge-drink without the encumbrance of a costume, scores of revelers arrive on trains from the suburbs of Long Island and New Jersey, stumbling out into their slushy urban playground from the underground maze that is Penn Station. They are wasted when they arrive in part because it is legal to drink on said trains. But the transit system has fought back.
For several years, the Metropolitan Transit Authority has issued a blanket alcohol ban on trains for the day of SantaCon. This year, New Jersey Transit went a step further, seeking to curtail secretive boozing by forbidding beverages of any kind.
As in, you can’t even sip from a bottle of water, lest it contain pure moonshine. This is the dystopia these feral Santas have wrought, and the cruel irony is that innocents will suffer even as the crackdown does nothing to dampen the drunkenness of the Kris Kringle cabal.
To paraphrase Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park: “Bros find a way.” Maybe they’ll climb onboard with vodka-soaked tampons up their butts? Snort black-market alcohol powder out of their curly white beards? Ol’ St. Nick has to stay jolly somehow.
My fear is that as SantaCon continues to swell, and as the temporary drinking rules fail to keep the yuletide horde under control, the transit authorities will impose harsher and longer restrictions. Now it’s a 24-hour prohibition of literally any liquid on NJT; in 2019, it could be the whole weekend. By 2020, they might be considering a dry period that stretches from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day. We can’t start down that road, or at some point, the powers that be will have to conclude that it’s easiest to permanently forbid their passengers’ consumption of brown-bagged tallboys. Can’t you Santa dudes think about the big picture for once in your Jäger-spattered lives? This isn’t an episode of Family Guy — it’s REAL LIFE, with REAL FUCKING CONSEQUENCES. Gahhh!
In any other context, drinking on a train is among the most civilized forms of inebriation this country has. Many an evening did I ride the commuter line from New York to my parents’ home in South Orange, New Jersey, for some occasion or other, nursing an overpriced Modelo Especial as I watched the trees whip by, feeling for all the world like John goddamn Cheever. My dad does the same each Friday night on his way home, easing into the idle pleasures of the weekend.
Except for the trains that go out to the Hamptons in the summer, on which you can expect to meet a lot of pink-faced goons shouting that they need a bottle opener for their rosé, the booze-friendly rail journeys are pointedly not a tailgate-style or party scene — you’re meant to enjoy that beverage quietly, responsibly and, ideally, while reading investigative journalism on your iPad.
We know that SantaCon participants are a scourge on the neighborhoods they choose to swarm. Yet their influence is more widespread than we realize. Already they’ve ensured that any 28-year-old white dude with a few days’ stubble in the Father Christmas getup will be universally regarded as a dangerous miscreant, whatever he happens to be doing. They’ve more or less poisoned the concept of a pub crawl, and they’ve outright murdered the goodwill people briefly showed toward so-called “flash mobs.” Letting them give train beers a bad name is unacceptable.
I call upon everyone else who treasures this privilege to exercise it at every opportunity — not just because it may not last, but to prove that you still deserve it. Also, without something to take edge off, you may remember that these railways are basically falling apart. So crack open a cold one and do your best to act refined as you toss it back. We’re all counting on you.