From 2006 to 2011 I took part in Santacon, an anarchic costumed event in which hundreds of Santas descended on San Francisco to make merry and overwhelm the city’s drinking establishments. Because I was not a big drinker or a herd animal I had to find a different way to take part. I reasoned that if Santta was real, Santa surely had an elaborate security apparatus akin to the Secret Service. Thus Santa’s Little Secret Service was born. There were five elves on our first deployment. By 2011, Santa’s security included about 24 elf agents, elite nutcracker troops, and sugar plum fairy special forces. Today I’m writing about one of my favorite moments from the project.
Downtown San Francisco: Jesus arrives in a yellow cab. My elf agents form a security cordon as Jesus gets out.
I tell Jesus, Perfect timing.
Jesus smiles and asks what we’re doing.
We’re going to the Westfield Shopping Center, that’s what. ‘We’ are about 300 drunk Santas, a drunk Santa klezmer band, 20 mostly sober secret service elves, and Jesus. It is Santacon 2008.
photo (and cover photo) by Mitch Aidelbaum. That’s me in the background.
I was the lead elf agent, and also, secretly, one of the organizers of Santacon. I hatched the scheme to bring Santa to the mall. I began planning the mission about a month prior. A fellow organizer and I cased the mall like a pair of bank robbers. Posing as a couple shopping for Christmas presents, we assessed security, entrances and exits, and our route through the mall. We were as prepared as can be for the task of leading a mob of Santas into a mall full of cameras and rent-a-cops. I did not sleep well the night before.
As our security detail escorted Jesus to the Market Street entrance of the mall, pedestrians began shrieking: JESUS!
I was anxious about how Jesus would be received. The answer was: Like a rockstar. I triggered my lapel mic. All agents, let’s move Santa to Powell Station.
My agents fanned out and we began quietly, politely corralling Santa down the subway station steps.
Rule number three of Santa’s Little Secret Service: We don’t order Santa to do anything. We request.
I caught the eyes of the head of the Santa Klezmer band (the band leader was another incognito Santacon planner). He guided his musicians behind us. I took a small detail of agents and the originator of Christianity down into Powell Station.
As Santa poured into the station’s mezzanine, commuters gawked at the red horde, Jesus, and the Klezmer band. Our next move was through the subterranean entrance of the Westfield and straight into the food court. I looked at the four giant glass doors and my heart dropped. There was a cop—a real cop, not a mall cop—blocking each door. They must have heard us, or intuited our plan.
Santa continued to stumble down the steps behind us. Jesus looked at me. What’s the plan? I looked at Jesus. I looked at the cops. I looked at my agents. I didn’t want to go to jail, but I literally had Jesus on my side. After you, Jesus, I said.
So Jesus, complete in his flowing white robe, sandals, and long hair, walked straight toward one of the doors. I flanked him. Behind us: The rest of the agents, the Klezmer band, and a mob of Santas. We walked toward the door and the cop. The cop watched us, stone faced. Jesus walked on, his face perfectly serene. When we were just a few feet from the door, the cop stepped aside without a word.
Holy shit. They were letting us in. I tried to hide my astonishment as we streamed through the doors and the first crowd of shoppers turned and saw Jesus and the red tide: JESUS! SANTA!
photo by Steve Rhodes
Wide-eyed mall cops and nonplussed real cops hovered on our fringes as we processed through the food court and to the first set of escalators. The escalators were arrayed around an open six story atrium that required to us to walk halfway around the atrium to get to the next up escalator. We began our slow ascent. The police came with us, the mall cops hovered unhappily, Klezmer music filled the mall.
People laughed, took pictures, posed with Jesus. My agents had been trained not to smile so there we were, in the background. Grim faced, staring down all comers. Adding that delicious extra pinch of absurdity.
photo by Steve Rhodes
We slowly made our way to the top floor and then crossed to the other side of the mall to a second atrium and another set of escalators. It was then that a cop who had been shadowing me for the past 10 minutes finally approached me.
You’re not going to Bloomingdales are you?
No sir, I reassure him in a professional tone. We are taking the down escalators and leaving.
Good. Because if you went to into Bloomingdales, we wouldn’t be able to protect you.
Protect us? From whom? And then I got it. The cops were following our little parade through the mall. And following the cops—the jittery mall security. The cops were protecting us from the mall security. Woah. A Christmas miracle. [ed. The SFPD was remarkably patient with us over the years, and treated the SLSS with something approaching professional courtesy).
photo by Ally Sandwich
I discreetly issued directions to Jesus, who beatifically shepherded us to the down escalators. We slowly descended. As we left, shoppers returned to shopping. The mall security grumbled into their radios. And the cops strolled alongside, as if this happened every day.
And now, some photos from later Santacons, as Santa’s security envelope became much more elaborate. You can find many more photos on the SLSS Flickr group (remember Flickr?)
photo by Ed Hunsinger
photo by Zach Lara
photo by Zach Lara
And then there’s this video
photo by Sally McIntyre