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SantaCon is on, despite pushback from City

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Santa Con revelers gathered at Union Square Saturday afternoon. (Laura Waxmann/S.F. Examiner)

Despite the City’s objection to the annual SantaCon, hundreds of revelers in red suits and white beards trekked to San Francisco’s Union Square on Saturday to spread some holiday cheer — and to then cheers in local bars.

“Officially it’s cancelled, unofficially it’s on,” said a man who gave his name as “Santa Larry,” while fishing candy canes from his backpack for BART passengers, en route to Powell Street Station. “I heard they are expecting 2,000 people.”

While previous years have drawn thousands of participants, this years festivities were dampened after The City declined to issue permits for the gathering over safety and crowd control concerns — meaning no sound system, no “best dressed Mr. and Mrs. Clause” contests, and a noticeably thinned out crowd.

“It’s not that many people, and it brings down the spirit,” said Annabel Torres, who along with her friends took Caltrain from San Jose to attend. “I know the meeting point is also for people to donate toys — not being able to congregate here kind of deterred us from wanting to bring toys.”

Tom DiBell, a SantaCon organizer for the past three years, shouldered some of the blame for the relatively low attendance.

“It was my fault — I didn’t start early enough,” said DiBell, adding that he competed in the permitting process with the Union Square Ice Skating rink, adding that The City “didn’t want that many people in the square” due to safety issues.

“When I got the news I got depressed, angry all of those feelings and I changed the name of the SantaCon Facebook page to ‘cancelled,’” he said. “I should never have done that.”

No matter, DiBell, a member of the Neighborhood Emergency Response Team, had hopes for the day. He had already collected some 30 toy donations for the San Francisco Fire Department, and held-fast to his goal of doubling the donations he collected last year — some 764 toys.

He also was busy making plans for next year, when SantaCon will celebrate its 25th anniversary.

“We want it to be big but we want it to be controlled,” he said. “We want to start as early as January to make sure they understand this is going to happen and hopefully they will work with us and make it easy.”

SantaCon was started in San Francisco in 1994 by a “group of anarchists” who wanted to “mob a bar,” and grew into a yearly tradition that last year drew 1,700 people to Union Square, according to DiBell.

“I still think that most of the crowd is here to have fun. And to mob the bars,” he said. “If at the very beginning they get direction on what to do what not to do, then it is entirely possible that it can be even better next year.”

DiBell’s advises to drink “two cups of water to prevent a headache” and to “meet children and others with respect.”

“Once you put on the Santa suit you become the big guy,” he said. “And all the children and most everybody else sees you as Santa. I want everybody to understand that.”

For others for whom this year’s SantaCon flashmob was the first, the lack of formality that accompanied the event mattered little.

“It’s a bucket list item,” said Norman Breshears. “I read about the permitting but it doesn’t take away form the fun. It’s about the camaraderie of people enjoying themselves and that are into the Christmas spirit. To me, the Christmas spirit is love —  love for another person and the community.”

lwaxmann@sfexaminer.com

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