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Bad Santas

A writer joins 95 Nicks who suit up and stumble through Richmond.

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A group of Virginia Tech fraternity brothers started the crawl in 1994 (or maybe '95) with 16 participants (or maybe 12). They'd heard about a bunch of folks donning Santa suits and pub-crawling through the streets of Baltimore (or maybe it was Annapolis). You get the point: The lore and legend of the event is somewhat blurry among the revelers' fleeting moments of lucidity.

While the history is hazy, the hype has only grown. "It's spreading like fight club," says Brad Jones, the one Santa who's attended every year. Now the crawl draws from 80 to 100 partiers.

Most of the fun is harmless, Jones says. A few years ago, one Santa got lost, and ended up passing out on the couch in the wrong house. But the woman intruded upon didn't call the cops — she gave him cookies. Sometimes a Santa suit can be a "get out of jail free" card.

I decided to get in on the fun.

There are two ways to go when buying a Santa suit: expensive or cheap. I chose the latter, opting for $30 discount number. The pants and suit were thinner than gas-station toilet paper, yet they managed to lock in every drop of sweat. The beard's elastic drawstring eased its way into the side of my ear. And the black, faux-plastic boot leggings clashed badly with my brown sneakers and exposed white gym socks. It turns out the half-life of a cheap Santa suit in a smoky bar is about five minutes. Soon I was in need of a North Pole makeover.

Others went over the top, including veteran crawler Billy Rose, whose suit was glowing from dozens of lights. He had hidden 10 C batteries somewhere in the costume. "But I need to change them at 11:30," he said. Some Santas had added plush reindeer antlers and leopard-skin suits. And a couple of women opted for homemade "naughty" and "nice" novelty Ts.

We met at 7 p.m. at Bandito's in the Fan. It started as a frenzy of un-Santalike behavior: drinking, smoking and taco-eating. And don't forget gambling — one Kris Kringle used my phone's Internet browser to check his four-team college hoops parlay bet. (He lost.) A bus arrived at 9:30 to take us to Shockoe Bottom. By now, many of the Santas' faces had blushed to a rosy red. We sang carols, took a deep breath and prepared to take over a dance floor.

I can only imagine what Tiki Bob's patrons thought when 95 Santas, reindeer and Santa's helpers crashed through the door, a blur of red and white. Most of us took off for the bathroom while the rest bellied up to the bar. Minutes later, Santas were spotted gyrating on the dance floor and offering pelvic-thrust moves on top of the bar. I too decided to climb onto the bar to get jiggy with it — an idea that seemed like a good one until my less than graceful dismount sent a shot of pain through my ribs and assured me of an ugly morning-after bruise.

The suit turned out to be a red badge of courage when mixing and mingling. After all, how can you turn down Santa as a dance partner?

After Tiki Bob's, it was a free-for-all. I followed a gaggle of Santas to Richbrau (the grinch at the door made us remove our hats), Buddies, Metro Grill and returned home in time to order pizza.

Is Stumbling Santas a new holiday tradition or just an excuse to tie one on? Probably both, but it's more fun than jockeying for a parking spot at the mall or sticking stamps on countless envelopes. But if you're gonna suit up, just make sure you ask Santa for some aspirin. S

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