The recent frequency of cultural appropriation arguments has created a common vocabulary (and often weak understanding) for arguments regarding the protecting, preserving and communicating the value of cultural traditions. But what of a culture that is based on disruption, a culture that thrives on a slash and burn approach to its own customs, whose tradition is to instigate experiences of culture jamming and dissonance, for its own members (you may already be one) and everyone else too?
Summary by ActionGrl (sourced from Facebook): for many years an event called SantaCon has grown from its roots as a culture-jamming gathering with roots in a rebellion against the consumerist nature of Christmas. 20 years later and having spread to many cities, it’s now the world’s biggest drunken costumed bar crawl…which is fine, but not the Santa I knew back in the day, where the prime directive I enjoyed was interacting with the shopping public, not just getting so drunk you can’t stand up, vomiting in alleys in front of confused kids, and treating our city’s bartenders like Santa’s personal servants. As a cheeky performance antidote to it all, we conducted a funeral for Santacon right in the middle of the event… complete with a candy cane coffin marched around while a brass band played
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
I forgot about the funeral for SantaCon until an hour before it started. As is my custom, my lazy and slightly depressive morning roll over was initialised by a reach for my phone to flick through the strange and surreal versions of (hyper)reality I routinely gorge myself on in an effort to feel connected and important. My feed included a photo of a participant, en route to the happenning, demonstrating the appropriate funeral attire as was requested of participants. I needed something to snap me out of bed and my funk and this was it.
“Santacon funeral (it’s dead, let it go) is on at Sutter and Stockton at noon… wanna put on some black (and a fedora) and do this?” read my 11:29am text message to the friend who had played bar rail therapist the night before.
I had heard about the prank within (what was once) the prank a few weeks prior via social media. I was drawn to the re-appropriation of the culture of irreverence and social critique that had spawned SantaCon but has been long lost in the years of drycleaning.
“But it’s hyper-reality,” I replied to said friend’s hesitation with reference to the subject of our previous evenings’ conversation. At 12:11pm I sent a picture of me with lilies and a sad/mourning face in a hired car and on my way.
“Awwww! You look so sad! I didn’t realise you knew Santa that well,” my friend who is possibly better-versed in the disruptive legacy of San Francisco, Cacophony, Chicken, etc, said.
“Are you suggesting my tourism may be in bad taste? I’m in mourning for the prevalence of derivative, over inspired, experience. Or am I an unwitting proponent of the former…?” I responded.
I wholeheartedly and unreservedly accept and proclaim my tourist status. I’ve always been late, 5 mins or 5 years no matter, I wasn’t cool enough, I was too far away, I was married, whatever excuses I can offer up don’t matter – I wasn’t here when Burning Man didn’t have compromised and confused Principles (or any principles at all), I went to Detroit after ruin porn was a thing, I completely missed the Odeon and the game shows, I started circus classes in 2011 and my first (and only) Santacon was in Melbourne, Australia last year (and my concerns and aversion for derivative efforts was assuaged there because it’s a DDP there – an awesomely authentic and inclusive super fun mobile dance party). But since finding genuine passion and curiosity for all of these ends of the spectrum of human expression, I am keenly developing my ability to analyse and comment on their roles within what I consider the continuous evolution of humanity. But you can read more about that somewhere else.
Don’t get me wrong. I did not go to make fun or pretend to be one of the insiders who actually have something to mourn – their intentions and efforts to give people an inspired avenue for disruptive ideas and questioning of dominant power and control structures. I wanted to pay my respects and recognize that I missed out on being a part of something that mattered. And that I have a responsibility/need to do something better now.
I pushed my way through the SantaCon crowd with my funeral lilies, and honestly feeling pretty smug and superior (yes, I’m an ass). Squeezing through about 3,000 people, past the cart selling face painting and Santa paraphernalia, in between a tour bus and a sidewalk spilling people into the street, I circled the square searching for a pile of black clothes and bereavement. I found the social justice demonstrators first and was hit with juxtaposition of issues and ideas, that are not only at odds with each other in society and in my heart and mind (fighting for justice / bringing more whimsy into life), but also in the same public square that day.
I found the funeral party around the next corner. Santa lay in a coffin adorned with candy cane handles and poinsettias with a marching band and a bevy of about one hundred grieving funeral-goers surrounding the scene. I found Santa’s daughter and offered my condolences. “I’m sorry I never got to know him, I was too late, but I recognise and respect the role he played,” I said. “He’s in a better place now, well, we’re in a better place now,” she responded.
A man who was a part of leading Burners out of Black Rock City and into disaster areas to expand and share their creative and survival skills to support and assist communities in need, called the crowd to order to deliver the eulogy. (As if the mainstreaming of San Francisco’s culture of disruptive and demonstrative performance art that SantaCon seems to represent, now needed to be rescued from its disaster state perhaps?)
“SantaCon was not originally an excuse to buy Santa suits and go on a bar crawl, it was an opportunity to comment on the fact that you cannot consume your way to happiness, and yet, in the way that capitalism always does it has turned this anti-capitalist event into yet another commodity to be consumed. And so we kill this consumer event so that another can rise from its ashes… We will come up with something new.”
Like other annual events that have also been replicated in a bunch of cities around the world (Brides of March, Iditarod, Salmon Run, Burning Man), SantaCon started as a Cacophony Society event. But, as the Daily Beast points out, “Most Cacophony events were one-off affairs, just enough to jam the culture a bit before moving on.” As I understand it, the idea with SantaCon and most Cacophony events is not to demonstrate how to have fun and recruit people to repeat an established form of expression or fun, but to inspire others to create and share their own fun; to make up our own games, to share the authentic expressions that could only come from each of us. But even to Cacophonists, SantaCon was worth a repeat in San Francisco in 1995, and then when the pranksters decided to do it yet again in 1996, they took it to Portland. Then the next year to LA, then New York where “they marched in front of the United Nations as representatives of the North Pole, holding signs to stop the Holly-caust” (reference). Despite the fact that it seems like the event was seeded to spread and continue (this year, SantaCons took place in almost 200 cities), the original anti-consumerism message and call to ridiculousness has been lost to result in SantaCon being perceived as nothing but a drunken mess.
The catch cry of the SantaCon originator’s Cacophony Society is “You may already be a member,” implying their call to action “BYO mischief”. SantaCon was supposed to be an example of human creativity, whimsy and collective fun where everyone brings something unique to their particular form of art or expression to enhance the party but it’s become mundane and normalized. Standardized or institutionalized to the point that “the (NYC SantaCon) organizers are letting people know the ‘do’s and don’ts’ through social media, and I believe that people will respect that,” and the NYC SantaCon organizers hired a lawyer (reference). I mean, Jesus. I mean, Santa. I mean.. whatever.
SantaCon was originally intended to be a public and shared expression of independence from the mandates of consumerism. But, disconnected from its origins and devoid of its inspiration, it became a tradition, an institution, and a capitalist mechanic for consumption – of alcohol, of experience and of culture itself. The SantaCon Funeral happening turned the scrutiny of capitalist consumer culture that SantaCon was devised to express back upon itself.
Simply by repetition, actions, disruptive or otherwise, become traditions. First it’s disruptive, then it’s derivative and done (by a lot of people in 200 cities around the world). And now, in the case of SantaCon, it’s dead.
Newness, innovation and ingenuity are all obviously impermanent. Therefore for a culture based upon accelerating the evolution and audacity of human expression to remain true, it must constantly undo itself, applying the same irreverent irony and critical questioning it throws at dominant power structures and systems, to that which becomes authoritarian within its own ranks.
I think it is fitting that SantaCon died at age 20 – an age when one is considered to be mature, reasonable, grown up and expected to just want to fit in. But the game was to celebrate adolescent thrill-seeking and authority-questioning while playing with the sacrosanct – demonstrating that reality is suspect and therefore ready for the making.
As another SantaCon Funeral participant penned on their website, “… the true crime against SantaCon is the lack of innovation. The entire message has been lost”. Explaining the actions of the funeral creators they write, “since we couldn’t expect anything new and creative from the current batch of Santas, we had to prank our own prank and put SantaCon someplace they can’t get to it. By declaring SantCon dead, we reclaim some of the overly congested bro-space and bring it out of the fog. Hopefully we’ve left a void that can be used for someone else to be creative, show initiative and develop something new. That’s the space we worked within for many years until we reached SantaCon’s cultural elastic limit. Maybe with a little wiggle room and a little less momentum, we might get to see something fun again.
I moved to the edge of Santa’s coffin and gazed into his cold, dead, chipped plaster eyes. I placed my lilies in his ancient puppet hands, held on the edge of the box, closed my eyes and took it seriously. I felt someone take my picture as I bowed my head and focused on taking in the incredible sea of creativity, motivation and whimsy I was surrounded by, to feel my way into my role in this cultural movement. I had my moment, then found and thanked our Brother Preacher for his moving words. I scanned the crowd for inspiration and found that what I craved was a beer and a break. I found the nearest bottle shop, chose a few cans with shiny gold cans, got a sandwich and headed back to the corner of chaos.
But it was gone.
Santa, the casket, the mourners, the marching band, the entire affair had vanished. Like Christmas morning, the cookies near the tree had disappeared, but the gift of possibility and play had been left in their place.