NEW YORK (AFP) - Dressed as Santas and sexy snowflakes, exuberant revellers roared out Jingle Bells, gulped down beer and danced in Times Square on Saturday, kicking off New York's controversial SantaCon bar crawl.
Thousands - many young and a few old - are expected to frequent more than 30 Manhattan bars which are opening their doors to a party slammed by critics last year after drunk merrymakers brawled, vomited and urinated in the streets.
But when one neighbourhood in Brooklyn tried to ban this year's gathering, civil rights lawyer Norman Siegel played Santa to SantaCon, coming to the rescue to help redesign a festive, but law-abiding gathering.
To ease pressure on New York police, who will be out in force at a major civil rights rally to condemn police killings, the organizers agreed to start early and restrict themselves to Midtown.
"It's going to be a crazy day," said Greg Packer, a retired highway maintenance worker, taking part for the first time.
"It's part of the holiday season, it's New Year's, it puts you in a festive mood," he added, squeezing his portly frame into a Santa suit, buckle and hat.
Revelers gathered in Times Square from 9:00 am, dressed as Santas, reindeers, elves and snowflakes, drapped in Christmas lights and tinsel. A few young men sipped beers hidden in paper bags.
GOOD SANTAS THIS YEAR
Bellowing out Jingle Bells, they danced and hoisted each other onto one another's shoulders as women in stockings and suspenders, mini skirts and thigh-high stilettoed boots huddled in the cold.
Jose Solorzano, a 23-year-old student, and accountant friend Benny Riccardo said complaints were unjustified, pointing out SantaCon ("con" for "convention") raises money for charity.
"I make an exception sometimes!" said Riccardo of his early morning breakfast of beer. "It's the Christmas spirit. We're not going all day, but we'll try!" said Solorzano.
Despite one couple with a young child, many were students and those fresh out of college - the demographic blamed last year for the rowdiness.
Blonde elf Malorie Dillon, a 21-year-old vet assistant, said she and her group of friends were going to each bar.
"I think we'll all be fine," she giggled when asked if there would be trouble.
"Good Santas this year, everyone's going to behave," said 21-year-old student Colleen Lindgren from Long Island, who came up with friend Caitlin.
DRUNKEN SANTA FIGHT VIDEOS
Organisers are firmly against unruliness and expect around 15,000-20,000 people to take part in a peaceful, festive atmosphere.
"Quite honestly, with so much fun, it doesn't make sense to be drunk before noon," said one, dressed up in a corduroy Santa costume and sporting a gray beard, giving his name only as "Santa."
"When you see all those crazy, drunken Santa-fight videos and it's night-time, that's not SantaCon anymore. That's just a bunch of idiots," he laughed.
The lawyer Siegel, who will closely follow the event to make sure no one gets arrested, said police and SantaCon met Friday to agree the dos and don'ts.
"This is America, you can't ban people from walking on a public sidewalk," Siegel told AFP.
"I hope they will listen to some of the things I suggested, but we'll see later."
New York police are entitled to arrest those who block traffic, drink outdoors, get into a fist fight and urinate on the streets.
"If we can have a parade next year and make it an annual event, that ideally in a few years families would come with their children and celebrate the holiday season, this city could use that," said Siegel.
"Maybe that's a dream that can be fulfilled or maybe it's just an illusion. But that's the challenge to try to make it happen."