Well put together, smooth, almost dapper, they sporadically arrive at the bar.

This night was planned, thought out. Shots are distributed. The crew continues to trickle in, which means more shots. God have mercy on the first few to come through the doors. They were supposed to pace; by God. Now that’s out the window. Punctuality has no place here.

The plan has already failed.

More arrive, dressed for the occasion. There’s already 20 or so, all milling around the town’s oddest mixer. This crew, this assortment, they’re not focused on who’s the best looking or the tallest or oldest, or who has the best smile. No dwelling on height, sex, race, or age. Tonight, they’re all equals. It’s a marathon of sorts, full of toil. One night a year, they gather and move from bar to bar, spreading goodwill and holiday cheer.

It’s the March of the Santas.

For the uninitiated, the March of the Santas is a holiday phenomenon that involves dressing up as Santa Claus and bar hopping, preferably with a crew of similarly dressed compatriots. Bartenders consider themselves lucky if their bar is one of the early stops.

No. 6 finally arrives. He built a sled. Haphazardly assembled, it doesn’t even have a seat. Just a pidge-podge green and white cart with a broken wheel and tinsel stapled around the sides. It doesn’t matter though; planning has no part in tonight’s adventure.

Assembled, the various Santas all agree that it’s the time to start moving along. They gather, order and offer tribute before setting off on their crusade. The early arrivals are already buzzed, but raring to go. They make it a block before realizing the dilemma of 25 people dressed the same trying to show IDs. The bartenders see the crowd and the flurry of texts begin to spread: They’re coming, God help you. Some bartenders suddenly find religion and cross themselves as they hear the “HO-HO-HO” echoing up the street, sounding more menacing all the while. Bedlam is the aim of the evening.

Another round or two. Glitter begins to amass in the streets, on the bars and the surface of every person hugged. Unprompted, Santa No. 16 hits on a random woman sitting with her family and doesn’t see anything wrong with that. No. 8 still wants to be saucy and orders an old fashioned, forgetting a loose directive of the night: Keep It Simple. One mixed drink, and the others realize the other rule of the night: There are no rules. They order a round of the same.

They move on, heading towards Fourth Street. The group spaces out, some are at the last bar finishing their drinks, others might be two stops ahead. One Santa bailed when he saw his ex canoodling with a glittery reindeer.

It’s early yet. Four decide to drop out, sticking around to hit on the singles who might have a thing for older dudes with bushy white beards. Much like the Appalachian Trail credo: Hike your own hike. The sea of red and white march on.

The sled begins to disintegrate between the fourth orfifth bar. Parts of costumes, parts of the sled and abandoned beards are strewn down the sidewalk, marking the trail like breadcrumbs.

One woman sports a white beard, the doorguy at the bar dons a discarded Santa hat. A random Santa lingers in an alleyway and contemplates her “second breakfast.” She’ll catch up. A group of right jolly old elves from Wake Forest University encounter the remaining Santas a block over and casualties ensue, taking numbers and TikTok handles.

The final bar is in sight; the welcoming neon gleam should be a triumph. It’s Endsville though, water and bar snacks the only respite while waiting for an Uber. The two that remain are traumatized and nearly broken, the only consolation being the tinsel and wood scraps that the street sweeper may miss.

Happy Holidays.

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