SantaCon Descends on an Ever-Changing Montrose

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It's been said that all good things must come to an end. And with the blink of an eye, the most wonderful time of the year -- the one where stockings were being hung with care and we weren't trying to kill ourselves to score the new Beanie Baby, or whatever it is that kids want these days -- is once again a thing of the past.

But 'twas also the season to blow off some serious steam. We all know that with the holidays come stress and a serious need for everything in moderation, including moderation. It's exactly the reason we've been given the Christmas miracle known as SantaCon.

A few weeks ago, it came in an email from a friend, and looked like she had just cut and pasted it from a Facebook event post. It read (in part):

It's the holiday season! Time for the Santa's [sic] of Montrose to strut their suits! SantaCon Montrose! Time to bust out your Santa suit and show Montrose the Holiday spirit! Dress to impress in your best santa suit, elf ears and holiday attire.

But just what the hell is "SantaCon"? And why is it in Montrose?

Started in San Francisco 20 years ago as what was supposed to be a one-time experiment/event for people to join together and feel all warm and fuzzy, SantaCon is now --reviled and vilified in many U.S. cities -- -especially New York, where an estimated 30,000 Santas participated last year. It's been almost a decade now, but from my time living there, I saw the event go from what looked like a frolicking and fun time to a debaucherous hell-fest that most East Village bars finally wanted no part of. This year, the event even tried to move into the Brooklyn -neighborhood of Bushwick, but those bars banned all Santas from entering.

It may be getting a bad rap elsewhere, but SantaCon Montrose is a different story. Maybe that just has to do with our Texas hospitality combined with our Southern charm, but we Houstonians know how to handle ourselves.

Heralded by Modern Luxury magazine as the "lord of Lower Westheimer" for good reason, Shawn Bermudez has his fair share of bars and restaurants happening in the neighborhood. This year he took over Montrose SantaCon, now in its third year, from a former employee.

"I got involved with it in Houston in 2012 when a former employee of mine approached me about having Royal Oak and Boondocks involved in SantaCon, a Santa pub crawl going down Westheimer, with proceeds going to a local orphanage," Burmudez explains. "Of course, I said yes!

"This year, she notified me that she wouldn't be able to coordinate the event, so I spoke with Poison Girl, Etro, Catbirds and the newly opened Doc's Motorworks about keeping the event going ourselves, and we all agreed to keep SantaCon alive in Montrose," he continues.

And so SantaCon 2014 arrived one Saturday evening last month. In a town that was once known to care about nothing, it was nice to see everyone in festive wear cheerfully cavorting up and down the street. And those who weren't dressed for the occasion liked it, too, many of them taking photos with Santa, Frosty, reindeer and elves.

My own SantaCon trek began at Poison Girl (1641 Westheimer) and made its way east, scuttling from one bar to the next. Some folks were singing Christmas carols. The crowd skews young at 30 and under, but that's not surprising; dressing and drinking as Santa and his entourage is a young man's (and woman's) game.

At one point, I was out on the patio at Stones Throw (1417 Westheimer) listening to all the friendly Kris Kringles and Christmas trees make small talk. We were having a conversation about just getting into '80s music, "like...Hall and Oates, or Michael McDonald," said a gentleman named Carl. As much as I can get into the soft and smooth tones of the yacht-rock set, the conversation made me feel old. I didn't just get into '80s music. Someone didn't just turn me on to it. I lived through it. I realized that I might be old enough to be some of these kids' parent, and it startled me for a second.

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Last year's event brought out roughly 250 Santas, a number that was expected to double this year. As many bar dwellers as I saw donning gay apparel, I'm guessing it may be even more.

Not to be forgotten, SantaCon is for a good cause.

"With events like this that include several bars in the neighborhood, I feel like it's a good opportunity to bring awareness to local charities as well as some funds from the proceeds," offers Bermudez. "This year, we decided to partner up with Elves & More, a Houston charity that uses bikes as incentive for at-risk children to do well in school."

However, like most change, Montrose's ever-shifting landscape is hard for some to handle. Gone is what some consider the neighborhood's heyday. Later, at Catbird's (1336 Westheimer), old-timers reminisced and spoke of the area with reverence. And while I may miss the stench of cat urine at Infinite Records, the laid-back ease of Waugh Pool Hall or the majestic beauty of the Mary's wall mural, the more things change...

Not even open two months, Doc's Motorworks (1303 Westheimer), the fresh-faced new kid on the block for this Kringle crawl, was packed. Not nearly quite as packed as the other bars sprinkled across Westheimer, maybe, but it seemed to be holding its own on this night.

"I thought it went fairly well," says Doc's general manager, Garrett Edwards. "I definitely think it's something we could build on and make a bigger event out of it for this area. But all in all, I was fairly pleased with the results."

I drew my night to a close with a nightcap at Boondocks (1417 Westheimer), where Fernando was DJing to a massive crowd, playing a hot mix of street bangers at what happened to be the bar's monthly '90s party. While he lives in L.A., he makes the trek out to Houston the second Saturday of every month to spin for Houston crowds who can't get enough of the decade that spawned the Spice Girls and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

I made my merry way home happy and wondered, "Why does SantaCon come but once a year?"

Send your non-seasonal nightlife tips to nightfly@houstonpress.com.

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