Nine Houses: Lowertown SantaCons through the years 2012-2016
I attended my first SantaCon in December of 2012. SantaCons are held all over the United States with similar themes. A group of revelers dressed as Santa, reindeer and the like celebrating all things Christmas. Lowertown SantaCon became a tradition very quickly in St Paul. By the time I attended my first, it had been going strong for five years with no signs of demise.
2012 SantaCon V
The first year I attended, we crawled to bars and restaurants all over the Lowertown area, accompanied by an MC and a brass band called The Brass Messengers. From Gopher Bar with its surly bartenders and cash-only policy to Black Dog Café and the upscale Chinese/ Asian-Fusion bar Senor Wong’s. There we went traipsing through the snow. Snowflakes falling quickly, landing on noses and eyelashes. We shivered and sung carols between stops, warming up in one of the sponsoring establishments with friends.
Lowertown Loft’s Leasing Assistant, Allison invited us to begin our tour in the main room downstairs with a pre-party. I didn’t have an outfit planned so I wore my red penguin knitted sweater and tan cords. We got our face painted at Black Dog on our stop there. My new neighbors Doris and Dan joined us as well as a few other familiar faces from the building.
We’d had our first snow by the time Lowertown SantaCon arrived.
The nights were chilly but not unbearable. The glittery icicles and pristine snow glistened under the lamps. Christmas markets, work parties, decorations and twinkle lights covering the now bare trees all signified the start of the holiday season. Just a few blocks away at Rice Park, an outdoor skating rink was crowded daily with hockey players and figure skaters, family gatherings and people like me who could only skate in circles.
Unlike California, the weather reminded me of the Christmas movies I loved to watch. The snow gingerly falling on eyelashes and leaving wispy marks on coats. Yuletide felt so much more real in St Paul than anywhere I’d been other than perhaps my childhood home. Maybe that is what it invoked in me – a child-like wonder and inspiration to move beyond my everyday drudgery – work, money, work, getting to work by bus, standing in the cold for hours for a bus. Doing obligatory healing work and dealing with all the metaphysical and physical realities of my existence.
As luck would have it, at Bulldog I ran into the man I’d written the go away letter to. I was hopping around the joint to the brass band, singing carols and in control. I was having a great time at that moment. After all, if I knew anything, I knew I was right. I read situations correctly, I had it all down. I may have been enlightened or psychic and definitely clever. I ignored him on purpose to prove my point. I made sure to emphasize that by talking to his buddy sitting next to him.
Yea, I was right, he was wrong and there was no question. In the hours and days after this encounter, a gnawing dissatisfaction with my approach would develop. In the moment, my sensitivity to the pain I was suffering from being victimized or whatever it was I thought was going on was heightened. I was also pretty tipsy. It was easier to not care than care too much.
2013 SantaCon VI
The second-year I went to SantaCon the organizers switched up some of the venues – as the landscape of downtown morphed, so did the available venues large enough to house a growing group of Christmas enthusiasts. Snow, snowflakes, carols, fire dancers and at least one Krampus. Golden’s Deli on 4th and Wall, would turn out to be a multi-year spot for us red-cheeked revelers.
Mr. Golden and his troupe of children, family members and friends-of-friends owned and ran this quirky deli with its bagel sandwiches, Peace Coffee and brunch on weekends. There was a stage, art on the walls and a relaxed atmosphere invoking the nearby artist’s lofts.
Krampus is fairly popular in the Twin Cities due to the eastern European influence. A horned beast with a furry body and menacing visage, who punishes children for misbehaving A far cry and more sinister, perhaps than a lump of coal.
I planned to go on one or two stops of the SantaCon and head into Minneapolis for a DJ night at The First Avenue Record Room. The powers that be had different plans for me that night, I would soon find out.
I dressed as an elf and used some boots that looked good but weren’t really made for ice and snow. I’d had some issues a few times on the crawl with slipping around. When I left the party at one of the venues, I headed up the darkened 6th St to the bus stop on Minnesota Street.
Lost in reverie, excited about dancing in Minneapolis and seeing the DJs, I felt a gust of wind blow out of nowhere. A dark shadow fell. A foreboding thought crept through my mind about having to deal with someone I disliked, who would probably be there too. I huddled against the chill air as I walked quickly so I wouldn’t miss the bus.
On an uneven piece of the pavement by US Bank, a phantom spirit swooped through my body like a slap to my back. Suddenly, I tripped and fell hard on my face, jarring my neck, my bones. People walked by me, as I lay prostrate, flat on the ground, dazed and shaken up. They didn’t stop or ask if I was OK. As I got back my senses and sat up, I felt heat rising and spilling from my chin. I wiped at my face, and away came blood – fast and furious. My hands were cut-up too.
I knew I had to make it back to the apartment, each step excruciatingly painful. Blood dripping from multiple places all over my white coat and onto the snow below my feet. I tried to hold my chin to coagulate the blood, and yet it kept dripping. By the next morning as I assessed the damage – the gash on my chin was at least an inch long -raw and deep. My body could barely move – bruised and battered as it was. I didn’t have health insurance so I did my best to cover it all with Band-Aids.
Doris brought me food from a feast she had hosted. I was supposed to attend. I never did make it out dancing. I wondered if the DJs even missed my presence. Significance, showing up, being there seemed the only way to make an impact. I didn’t think about what I might need. Forging ahead to catch the bus, in the dark, on the ice, with the wrong boots. Was I a friend or a fan? A champion or a nuisance. I never really knew.
The scar on my chin is hard and knotty, dark hairs like to grow there. A constant reminder of the moment the pavement and my body shared a hard and unfortunate bonding. A good thing I didn’t die on impact. I never will know how the night at the Record Room went or who attended. Something or someone didn’t want me to show up though.
My third consecutive SantaCon, would mark a huge shift in my thinking – whether from the consistent BodyTalk and healing work Kris and I were conducting or other mindset changes, I had moved away from much of the rigid viewpoints I’d previously held.
For SantaCon, I reworked the elf costume with better boots and didn’t plan to go elsewhere. I was knee-deep in my MBA by this point anyway. Too much studying. Never enough funds. I’d just started my full-time job as an Administrative Assistant with a start-up finance firm. I was a contractor. I loved the job but working full-time and school full-time became a consistently stressful event. I was waiting for them to make me permanent and the leadership was waiting for the New Year.
Dan & Doris and the other neighbors who stuck around joined each other for the crawl. The building didn’t really sponsor an event that year. Allison was either on her way out or going and not that into us anymore.
We ended up at the new Bedlam Theater – an event center with a hippie feel that had used a Million Dollar restoration fund to redo the structure and get it up to code. We were hopeful and excited.
The Bedlam was housed in a building with a long-vacant first floor, where a jazz club once stood. I was familiar with the building from my time at Citizen’s League – then housed in the CoCo space on the 4th floor-- it was nice to see the revamped theater. It had been a rough year – for the first half, I was jobless and looking. I started my MBA in February, almost out of desperation. Dived right into my back-to-back eight-week classes.
Our most difficult classes had begun to form my cohort into future business leaders, we were often depleted and running on empty or sick. I let go of my strong desire to move out of my admin career and took the job at Springleaf in order to have a stable job through my time at school.
My curling season had been short, I’d let go of regular teams to make classes and couldn’t do many of the events. The crawl for me was a respite in the sea of intensity.
2015 SantaCon VIII
By 2015 SantaCon went through some major shifts in the route. Lowertown was changing. Big River Pizza had opened on the corner of Wall and 6th Street to take advantage of the revamped landscape of Lowertown with the opening of CHS Field – the Saint’s baseball stadium --and a growing number of new restaurants lined 6th street.
We dropped into Kelly’s Depot Bar – a legacy venue with the greasy kitchen, a connection to the now restored train depot and a dive bar feel. The place was crowded with Santas and Krampus and we stuffed ourselves into the venue for loud brass brand music, cheap cocktails and barely heard conversations.
Senor Wong’s continued to attempt to compete by renaming itself SW Craft Bar and Bedlam Theater remained on the list for a fun conclusion. I was preparing to finish out my MBA in the new year with a J-term abroad in Japan. I’d already taken the month of January off from curling because we were in class several times a week, plus the two weeks we’d be in Japan.
The semester concluded with a stressful event for me in which classmates on a group project had accused me of not working to deadline – a situation I contested due to illness. When I defended myself to their accusations on the basis of self-care, the teacher assumed I needed a mental health break, and removed me from the group project, and class. I had to make it up late and never did recover the grade.
I decided to go all out for the first time and create an entirely new costume for 2015. I reused a Halloween costume I’d made years before, added a crown and glitter, as well as fairy wings. I was now a Winter Fairy. I spent way more money than I had on dust, wings and the like but really wanted to show up with something fantastic.
By this point, Dan and Doris and others I was used to going with on the crawl – were now not going or had moved from Lowertown. I just went on my own but it wasn’t quite as fun or exciting as previous years with a large group from the building. Allison had moved on to run her own event’s business.
2016 SantaCon IX
The neighborhood just kept changing. Trattoria Da Vinci was gone. Bin Wine Bar was gone. Public and Green Lantern had opened in the space next to Barrio and Bulldog. The JAX building -one of the major contributors to the artist’s community, had been sold and the artists held a Wake.
While it would be years yet before the building was developed into anything – the artists moved out, the garbage containers in the back alley were filled with the remnants of once vibrant studios. One wondered whether Lowertown could still be called and “art’s district.”
Time waits for no person or city, and in the end, our sleepy little town was quickly becoming a bustling metropolis centered on redevelopment and high-priced luxury apartments. A new era of St Paul had begun whether we liked it or not. Bedlam didn’t last either. Turns out the quirky hippie theater just couldn’t afford the costs of the upgrades they’d incurred to open.
I attended in 2016, my MBA now complete. The wind had, however, gone out of the sails for me. My friends had moved. I was focused on other things and issues. It would be the last year for SW Craft Bar and Golden’s. They just couldn’t keep up with the changing landscape and increased offerings. The artistic, hippy joints and the older bars just simply didn’t have the élan of breweries, new hip eateries like Handsome Hog, the BBQ joint now occupying the Bin space.
In fact, it was the last year for me too. By 2017, I was burned out and struggling with my own issues. 2018, SantaCon almost canceled and went to a one- bar non-crawl event held in the Green Lantern. I didn’t attend either year. 2019, I'd just moved again and wasn't up for going out. What was once an amazing and fun-filled event that I couldn’t miss, had spiraled into decay from the gentrification of Lowertown and the changing landscape of my spiritual and physical existence.
Lowertown SantaCon had seen its time for me and the call of the wild spirit took me elsewhere. A sad effect of the story I have yet to tell about the final years of my living in Lowertown.