Hundreds in costumes revel at festive SantaCon

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Marcus Solis reporting live

Hundreds of bar-hopping Saint Nicks and costumed sidekicks including elves and reindeer are streaming through the streets of New York for the annual rite known as SantaCon.

Human snow globes, wrapped packages and the occasional Santa Jedi were also part of the festivities Saturday as the group stepped off in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood.

Officers on the ground kept watch and an NYPD helicopter circled overhead.

After several years of defending the massive bar hop, organizers started planning with police over a month ago. They got a permit to assemble in a park and even agreed to tweet police messages about pedestrian safety.

Participants were reminded to avoid naughtiness - and to stay hydrated.

After several years of defending the massive, costumed Christmastime bar hop against a bad-Santa rap, organizers made new efforts this year to convey that SantaCon is growing - not throwing - up.

For the first time, they publicly released the planned route days before their romp through Brooklyn and downtown Manhattan bars. Organizers, who once shied from officialdom, started planning with police over a month ago, got a permit to assemble in a park and even agreed to tweet police messages about pedestrian safety.

VIEW THE LIST OF PARTICIPATING BARS

Performance art to some, pub crawl to others, SantaCon is trying to evolve as organizers face pressure to take more responsibility for revelry. It has ballooned in size to thousands of people and now is coming at a time of heightened concern about security and public gatherings.

"There's a transition to a more positive SantaCon," said Norman Siegel, a civil rights lawyer who has worked with the group since last year.

Still, mixed feelings are as evident as dueling pro- and anti-Santacon signs in windows of businesses in Manhattan's East Village, and some officials are seeing red.

A dozen state and city politicians this week pressed SantaCon to "self-police" participants and asked the State Liquor Authority to station investigators along the route.

"Try spending an afternoon in some of our neighborhoods where the event is occurring, and you'll find incidents of disruptive and boorish behavior," says state Sen. Brad Hoylman, who represents Manhattan areas on the route. He said he was glad to see such changes as the route disclosure, but he's still concerned the format encourages binge drinking.

The agency and SantaCon said they already planned to do what was asked.

SantaCon grew from a 1994 San Francisco "Santarchy" that satirized Christmas consumerism into bashes in over 300 cities. New York's is generally acknowledged as the biggest.

Enthusiasts paint SantaCon as a creative take on holiday traditions of festive dress, good cheer and charity. Organizers say they raise tens of thousands of dollars for various causes.

But some New Yorkers came to see SantaCon as the fright before Christmas.

Police logged a total of two arrests and 85 summonses for disorderly conduct, open alcohol containers and other offenses during SantaCon in 2012 and 2013, when some Santas got into street fights seen in online videos. Commuter railroads began banning alcohol during the event, some Manhattan residents posted "SantaCon free zone" signs, and a city councilman effectively sank the group's plans to venture into a Brooklyn neighborhood last year.

Organizers started trying to mend fences in 2013, telling police (but not, until now, the public) their route in advance and asking volunteers to defuse problems. A "Santa Code" urges revelers to spread "joy. Not terror. Not vomit. Not trash."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Everyone there is "willing to dress up, drink, meet people, and have fun," the 29-year-old photographer said by email. "It is the kind of vibe I want to be around."
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