The True Meaning of SantaCon

Celebrating the holidays with a 30-mile kayak circumnavigation of Manhattan Island.

By Kenny Unser and Jesse Wilensky

In New York City, Santa Claus has two big days a year: Christmas and SantaCon. On Christmas, Jolly Old St. Nick is revered by all who receive his gifts. During SantaCon, Santa elicits emotions that range from joy to terror. Imagine pulling in to a subway station filled to capacity with people in Santa suits. Such scenes are common during SantaCon, an annual event observed in cities around the world and drawing 20,000+ people in holiday-themed costumes to New York City. The loosely structured, all day event moves between neighborhoods where Santa Clauses take over all the bars and public spaces. Several bars at each stop serve as collection points for food donations to the City Harvest food bank and have committed to donate a portion of their profits to Toys for Tots.

Mindful of the impact of their growing event, this year the SantaCon organizers offered only a loose, suggested route while encouraging attendees to follow their own path around the city. Our group took this suggestion to heart and planned a 30-mile kayak circumnavigation of Manhattan Island to coincide with the event.

We arrived early at the SantaCon start point, Manhattan’s Pier 84. It was the only part of the day when all the SantaCon attendees were in one place before Santarchy spread throughout the city. We donned our seaworthy costumes and spent a couple hours watching waves of red velour emerge from ferry boats, taxis, subways, and street corners. The scene was surreal. Santas were everywhere with a space shuttle and an aircraft carrier as a backdrop. People dressed in a range of themed Santa suits as well as Christmas trees, dreidels, elves, anything Christmas. Reindeer games were being played, gifts were being exchanged, and the alcohol was flowing from paper bags and flasks. After taking in the spectacle, the crowd moved to the bars, and we took to the water.

We decked our hulls in bows and garland before paddling off in a pod of holiday cheer. Our flagship sea sleigh was a red and white tandem supplied by the Achilles International kayak program, an organization that encourages disabled people to participate in mainstream athletics. Santa took the rudder controls with Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer guiding from the bow. Filling out our ranks was Bixby the Elf, a Sugar Plum Fairy, and Justin Bieber Santa. With seven hours of holiday music loaded on our waterproof stereo, we were ready to spread some Christmas cheer.

Along our 30-mile route, we encountered a diverse range of New Yorkers including fishermen in the South Bronx, subway mechanics in Harlem, and hipsters in Brooklyn. All received us warmly, snapping pictures and reminding Santa of their good behavior. We paid a surprise visit to the Inwood Canoe Club where we helped carry scavenged logs being used to rebuild their sea wall which had been damaged during hurricane Sandy.

After eight hours of riding tidal currents around our 30-mile course, we returned to our launch point tired and hungry from our holiday voyage. We loaded the boats onto our cars and drove to the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn for some food and to reconnect with the last leg of SantaCon. The massive crowd we had seen off in the morning had dwindled to a smaller gang of hardcore Santas. This trip put the team’s spirit to the test and, though exhausted, the joy of Christmas showed on the faces of one and all.

Look for Chris Gragtmans’ feature article on the Manhattan Circumnavigation in an upcoming print edition of Canoe & Kayak.

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