In the dark ages of the mid-1990s, I recall bringing the entire screenplay of Monty Python and the Holy Grail to middle school and sharing it with friends. I had found it on this new thing called the Internet. I couldn’t imagine anything more amazing. The movie script! From Monty Python! You guys!
As I began reading it aloud one of my friends stopped me, with a phrase I heard time and time again in York, Maine. Evan, you have too much time on your hands.
Fast forward to December, 2010. Deep in my gmail archives, the following email:
Friends of Christmas:
Many of you know what this email means already.
Santa is coming to town, and he needs our protection. This year’s Santacon is scheduled for Saturday, 12/4. As always details are sketchy though as a senior officer in Santa’s Defense Forces and Santa’s Secret Service, I will be privy to confidential information as it becomes available.
I can tell you that for the first time, an elaborate all-hands security operation will be deployed. That means all branches of Santa’s security apparatus: Santa’s Little Secret Service, Santa’s Little Intelligence Support Team (LIST), the 12th Nutcracker Regiment, the Sugar Plum Service, the 103rd Sleighborne Air Assault Regiment…maybe even the elusive Silent Knights [Santa denies the existence of the Silent Knights and the SPS]
[and so on]
I’d put quite a lot of time into this email, and the planning meetings, and location scouting, and the props. But in San Francisco I found a community that celebrated, rather than ridiculed my creative obsessions.
For those of you unfamiliar with North Pole Christmas certainty operations, a quick run down. In 2005 I became involved in an anarchic street theater event/pub crawl known as Santacon. When I joined there were about 500 Santa involved (no plural of the word Santa is acknowledged in the Santacon community).
I was fascinated by the people involved, particularly the anonymous and shadowy event planners (it took me several years to identify the group and join them). But, never much of a herd animal, I didn’t want to disappear into the red tide. Instead, I came up with a support role: Santa’s Little Secret Service, the deadly serious elf-bodyguards of the Santa.
We started with five elves, in 2006. A few years later, I had broken into a tight-knit art community of pranksters, nerds, and self-identified weirdos. Suddenly I had more volunteers than I’d ever dreamed of. In the later 2000s I ran several street theater events per year with 20 or more contributors. I’d found my creative community.
My happy place, creatively, is in building out complex, imagined worlds. Sometimes I imagine those worlds from whole cloth but I often do my best work from a prompt. The prompt for the Service was: If Santa were real, what would his security look like?
I started with bodyguards modeled on real world close protection details (eg, US Secret Service). Thanks to many years of genuine nerddom, I already had a base of knowledge on what the Secret Service was about. As I built out the project, I zealously researched the Secret Service and other protective services for specifics. In world-building, and in comedy, details are king.
I found a strange website that discussed “Secret Service hands.” I invite you, the next time you see a picture of a VIP, to look in the background for the unsmiling men and women whose (laser, mad dog) attention is focused outward. Where are their hands? Invariably… in front of them, usually loosely clasped at navel height. This is so they can more quickly engage an attacker or grab their protectee. It’s a martial arts thing. Cool.
So I instructed my elf bodyguards to do the same. And to scan for open windows, rooftops, to confront photographers, inspect cameras, and so on. We were rewarded by the frank astonishment of the public, who were drawn into our world.
But it wasn’t enough. I kept building out the world. Santa needed a uniformed military, like the Queen of England, which is how Santa’s Own 12th Nutcracker Regiment was born. And then, of course, Santa needed special forces. Because like any good nerd, I have always been fascinated by people who are the extreme opposite of nerds—physically gifted super hero archetypes, like first responders and soldiers.
Also, this project came to fruition during both the “security theater” era of the Bush administration (TSA, homeland security, etc.) and the War on Terror. I’d been following with great interest the proliferation of special forces around the world…the mysterious, bearded, CrossFit-jacked men in khaki “tacti-cool,” posing on top of burnt out cars, or behind puppet leaders in Central Asia (try a Google search of “devgru karzai” for some photo references.)
I also worked for a large dance company at the time. Like virtually all dance companies, our season (and our ticket sales) were dominated by a particular show that you may have heard of : The Nutcracker. And one of the stars of the show: The Sugar Plum Fairy, in her bejeweled tutu. I recall visiting the wardrobe department backstage and seeing the costume up close. It was impressive, particularly the enormous tutu, stiffened by internal reinforcement into a rigid, sparkling disc. Neat.
So of course, Santa’s commandos had to be sugar plum fairies. I built out an elaborate back story, which is my favorite thing in the world. The story is broadly inspired by the modern history of special forces, a period marked by the proliferation of specialist counter-terrorism units around the world.
I recruited a handful of friends and collaborators for the role. Among them, a US Army veteran, a professional stage manager, and a university event planner. I explained the history of their elite unit, and gave them the costume prompt: Sugar Plum Fairy meets Navy SEAL. They delivered, handcrafting costumes, tutus, and flak vests with great gusto.
I had by that time created a modular North Pole weapon system based on candy cane lawn ornaments (because, obviously). For my operator fairies* I spent many joyous hours cutting down candy canes, affixing flashlights, grips, and other accoutrements to approximate the custom firearms of elite soldiers.
My favorite was a candy cane sniper rifle, carried by a friend who had the most wondrous war face of them all. Cold steel behind those eyes…
*You’re probably wondering about the nomenclature of the Sugar Plum Service, and I’m so glad you asked. Because of the clandestine nature of the SPS mission, its members are asked to perform tasks outside of the Geneva Conventions, such as espionage, kidnapping, and sabotage. For these reasons, they cannot be identified as soldiers, or as agents of the North Pole government. A compromise descriptor, the operator fairy (OF), was devised to avoid diplomatic awkwardness. Additionally, operator fairies are all non-commissioned officers, as they often operate independently. But due to their seniority they attain very senior NCO ranks, such as Sergeant Fairy, or Master Sergeant Fairy.
The arrival of the SPS at Santacon was a sensation. Santa was most impressed. His drunken attempts to flirt were met with steely, thousand yard stares. The public was amused, and at least a little intimidated (kind of our sweet spot). I recall seeing an operator fairy lock eyes with a little girl on a BART train. The fairy leaned in close, wordlessly pulled a peppermint candy cane out of a bandolier, and handed it to the girl: “Merry Christmas.” The girl was transfixed (here’s a similar incident that was photographed).
One of the challenges of the project was to observe these moments and fight the involuntary, irresistible urge to smile. It was our relentless, mirthless intensity, that transformed a fun idea into proper street theater. Minds were blown. Which was, at the time, my deepest creative desire. To give the audience an indelible, undeniable moment of the absurd and surreal. To bring some light to their day. To give them a story to tell. An experience to remember forever.
Of course, I couldn’t stop at the Sugar Plum Service. Santa’s org chart continued to subdivide. There was the civilian (elvish) Christmas security department, the Bureau of Special Christmas Operations (BOSCO): Santa’s Secret Service, and the LIST intelligence agents. And Santa’s Defense Forces was divided into NUTCOM (ground forces) and REINCOM (sleigh ops)…And of course J-CCC, that’s Joint-Christmas Certainty Command, for special forces troops.
By the final year of the project, Santa had a full security envelope including: Santa’s Little Secret Service, Santa’s LIST agents, the 12th Nutcracker Regiment, Sugar Plum Service, and SPECGIFT.
What’s SPECGIFT? Officially the Santa denies the existence of any such unit. The Special Gifting Group was modeled on the CIA’s Special Activities Division—Shadowy elves with military bearing but civilian designations, to skirt entirely the laws of war. They circulated wanted posters for the Grinch and the Abominable Snow Man, and other enemies of Christmas certainty operations. A SPECGIFT sniper, clad in a full body Christmas tree ghillie suit, lurked amongst the Christmas tree vendors in Justin Hermann plaza.
I think the images of the final deployment are the best. We left the drunken chaos of Santacon and traveled deep into downtown San Francisco with a single, iconic (and sober) Santa, and more than 20 security operatives.
I recall Santa walking into the San Francisco Ferry Building, as confused security guards muttered into radios, and we muttered into OUR radios. Santa greeted his public, parents bemused/alarmed, kids standing starstruck and slack-jawed, fairies and elves hovering silently, stone-faced in the background, on balconies, everywhere, hands in front of them, or grasping weaponized lawn ornaments. A kid entering the security cordon for a private word with Santa.
And the Santa jolly as ever, backed as he was by enough Christmas ordinance to make the Ferry Building rain peppermint for days.
I look at these photos and I am awe of both my past self and my adopted family of creative, courageous friends. I can’t believe we did this. But the photos remain. I look at them and I feel a tinge of the stage fright I felt on those game days–generally 18-hour marathons, on our feet the whole time. Being menaced by irate security guards, the occasional humorless tourist…
I am so thankful to my friends who made this happen. It was one of those ideas that needed people, otherwise it was little more than a brain fart.
And not pictured in these photos (not usually, anyway) are the photographers. I learned early in my artistic career to include photographers on my team. We had a few in our press corps, among them Zach, Ed, and Sally. They came year after year, and they saved what was an ephemeral piece of art for posterity.
So to all the alumni of this project, thank you. You’re all moms and dads and respectable people now, but we were once bound by a sacred oath to the Santa, and to each other. And we are bound still. Ho.
I retired the Santa’s Little Secret Service for a number of reasons. One reason was that my security theater parody felt increasingly discordant with the grinding War on Terror, then in its 10th year. Despite my encyclopedic knowledge of warmaking, I abhor violence and war, and have come strongly to believe in the importance of nonviolence. After a while I could no longer justify the security cosplay, even if it was couched in irony and critique.
I’d also noticed that our event played well to many audiences, but notably did not sit well with members of the black and brown community. I recall us parading by a public housing project in my neighborhood in San Francisco, and a girl sharply asking, WHAT ARE THOSE? That’s when I realized that even candy cane guns were not funny to some of my neighbors.
Here is a thing that was real about San Francisco. It was statistically diverse but strongly segregated. My friend group was no exception. We were weirdos and outliers but we were almost exclusively white. In the latter 2000s I began to notice how little our art resonated with those in groups other than our own. And I never wanted to play to the orchestra, so to speak. In fact I had a rule with my art, that I never wanted to perform for people who were primed and ready, who were expecting it. If I’d wanted to do that, I could have just performed at Burning Man (ba dum dum *crash*). So I began to really question the foundations of this event.
And finally, Santacon was changing for the worse.
Santacon has a storied history, which is worth its own lengthy post. But the short version: It was started in 1995 by members of the San Francisco Cacophony Society, an underground art collective (the book/film Fight Club was inspired by the Cacophony Society—Chuck Palahniuk was a member of Portland Cacophony).
Santacon was originally an anarchic bit of street theater. Twenty-some Santas descended on downtown San Francisco and caused whimsical chaos in the premiere shopping district. The police were called. Santa was arrested. The charges were dropped. Good fun.
But by the time I became involved it was shifting towards a pub crawl (eg, a themed bar hopping event). In the latter 2000s SF Santacon had several thousand participants but the primary activity was heavy day drinking. The participants changed too. In a mirror of the demographic change in the Bay Area, Santacon was being coopted by our most bitter enemies, the Bros.
Bros, if you’re not familiar, are toxically masculine white males. In school they were the jocks and bullies. In college they were business and finance majors. At least, when I went to college. But something changed in the 2000s. Word got to the bros that the nerds were making serious money in tech. Suddenly bros were taking computer science. Then they started flooding San Francisco, their eyes black with moneylust. Then they started coming to Santacon. Soon, Santacon, and much of San Francisco, looked like spring break in Florida. In other words: Hell.
RIP Weird, Queer, Arty, Diverse San Francisco, 1946—2010ish.
But at least I have my memories, and several hundred photos.