Stolen wallets and groping Santas: Midtown Manhattan's Christmas tourists are back — and so is their bad behavior

Stolen wallets and groping Santas: Midtown Manhattan's Christmas tourists are back — and so is their bad behavior
Manhattan bartenders say that SantaCon participants did drugs, got into fights, and in one case, groped them.AP Photo/John Minchillo
  • 2020 was a rough year for Christmas tourism in Midtown Manhattan, but it's rebounded in 2021.
  • Workers are happy to see crowds return, but say aggressive behavior and drunkenness are issues.

After a scaled-back 2020, Bryant Park, one of New York City's iconic Christmas tourism spots, is once again operating in full force. Visitors from all over the country have filled the park, skating in the temporary ice rink and browsing the Winter Village, a collection of pop-up shops offering hot cocoa, gifts, and other Christmas delights.

Tourists who stayed home for Christmas last year "just want to have a good time," said Ercan, a worker at one of the Bryant Park Winter Village shops. But that can come at a price for workers.

Last week, Ercan was working a shift at his other holiday job, an ornament shop a few blocks away, when he realized his wallet had been stolen from out of his pocket. With the hustle and bustle of crowds flooding in from the nearby Broadway shows, he hadn't even realized it was gone.

The sheer volume of people can make things tense, he said. "People get angry."

Christmas in Midtown is back in a big way

Stolen wallets and groping Santas: Midtown Manhattan's Christmas tourists are back — and so is their bad behavior
People take photos of their families in front of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.AP Photo/Kathy Willens

Step off of the train at Rockefeller Center, 10 blocks north of Bryant Park in Midtown Manhattan, and you'll find yourself in the heart of New York City's Christmas industry. Santas cheer from the tops of double-decker tour buses, families laugh as they twirl around the center's ice rink, and tourists mill about, taking selfies with the famed 79-foot Christmas tree.


It's a stark contrast with Christmas 2020, when COVID concerns kept most tourists (and many locals) at home. Though the omicron variant has dampened spirits in recent days, most notably with the sudden cancellation of Radio City's Rockettes and several Broadway shows, the holiday season up until now has been very busy.

In November, TripAdvisor reported that New York City is the most popular domestic travel destination for Americans this winter, for the first time since the pandemic began. According to the Wall Street Journal, Black Friday pedestrian traffic on Fifth Avenue near Rockefeller Center was up 262% from 2020 to 2021, and city hotels had an occupancy rate of 79% this past Thanksgiving weekend, compared to 38% for Thanksgiving 2020.

Making holiday magic for all those tourists takes a lot of work — and a lot of workers. Prior to the pandemic, New York City's tourism industry employed 283,200 people, representing 7.2 percent of total private sector employment. That number fell to 194,200 in 2020, but with crowds returning, businesses have asked furloughed employees to return and put out blanket open calls for rapid hiring.

In interviews with retail workers, security staff, ticket sellers, and food-service workers, many expressed gratitude that the Christmas crowds are back. But they also say that tourists' pent-up enthusiasm, combined with the ongoing national hiring shortage, is creating problems on the job, ranging from pushing and shoving to outright sexual assault.

Too many people, not enough staff

Stolen wallets and groping Santas: Midtown Manhattan's Christmas tourists are back — and so is their bad behavior
The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree is a favorite destination for Midtown holiday tourists.AP Photo/John Minchillo

In the depths of Rockefeller Center, a security guard helps visitors navigate the large complex, pointing one group of guests towards the bathroom and assisting another with directions. (All of the workers we spoke to asked to be unnamed or use only first names, citing concerns about losing their jobs if they talked to the press.)


The guard said the center was understaffed, making it difficult to keep the large, revolving crowds of tourists under control.

An employee of a tour bus company, who also requested anonymity, said that Rockefeller Center was his least favorite station. The crush of customers can become aggressive, not affording him personal space while he is trying to load the bus. "People is crazy," he said, shaking his head.

Workers say the worst crowding is yet to come.

"Christmas week, that's when it gets crazy," said Hennessy, who sells high-end dog treats at the Bonne et Filou booth in Bryant Park's Winter Village. "That's when a lot of people come to do their last-minute shopping."

Alcohol fuels the fire — especially when SantaCon comes to town

Many workers said that alcohol is fueling the fire of already aggressive Christmas crowds.


Chris, who is a manager at the open-air City Winery in Rockefeller Plaza, said that he and his coworkers had to remove a guest just that day, after he was "overserved by colleagues."

While Chris said that most Rockefeller Center guests have been respectful, he noted that demand was high — and with so many people around, some amount of bad behavior was inevitable.

Several Midtown bartenders said they were still recovering from their most intense day of the season: SantaCon. Marketed as a charity drive, the costume-clad bar crawl has become a drinking festival with a history of vomiting, public fornication, public urination, and general mischief.

Stolen wallets and groping Santas: Midtown Manhattan's Christmas tourists are back — and so is their bad behavior
A crowd of SantaCon revelers in Times Square.a katz/Shutterstock

Despite the estimated 30,000 revelers who gathered in Midtown Manhattan on December 11, most New Yorkers seem to unite in a shared hatred for the event. And even with the increase in business (and tips), bar workers are very much a part of that group.

"It was packed all day, until about 5 AM," said Sergio, a bartender at a popular spot with the younger crowd. The bar's security was more than necessary that day, he said, with fights and drug use going on both inside and outside.


"We didn't have time to eat lunch or dinner," Sergio said. "But we made really good money."

Some workers, however, dealt with customer behavior that couldn't be excused by extra tips. Angelo, a barback at a busy Irish bar, said he'd been sexually assaulted by several female Santas during the event.

"When I was trying to pick up the [empty] glasses, a lot of the girls were grabbing parts that they shouldn't," he said. While he expressed distress to his coworkers, he declined to say if management ejected the customers.

According to a 2014 study by Restaurant Opportunites Center United, nearly 80% of women and 55% of men in the food service industry have experienced some form of sexual harassment from customers. 11% of men and 17% of women specifically reported customers inappropriately kissing, groping or fondling them.

In the state of New York, forcible touching of a person's intimate areas is a class A misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum of one year in jail or three years probation, and a fine of up to $1,000.


Many workers say they're just happy business is back to normal

In interviews with Midtown Christmas workers, many said they were struggling to balance the excitement of a thriving customer base with the problems that arise in its wake. Some lost work in 2020, and say they're just happy to see that sales are up.

While "we're not seeing the kind of international tourism that we typically see," things are still better than last year, said Iggy and Tony Pook, the energetic Canadian duo behind Pook Toques, a hat and sweater shop at Bryant Park Winter Village.

Stolen wallets and groping Santas: Midtown Manhattan's Christmas tourists are back — and so is their bad behavior
Skaters glide around the Bryant Park Winter Village ice rink, a favorite destination for visitors.AP Photo/Julie Jacobson

Leon, who's in his second season as a Rockefeller Plaza security guard, was quick to point out the stark difference from last year. "When people come here, they picture greatness and happiness," he said. "They're positive."

Sandra of Fairylights, a shop in the Bryant Park Winter Village, agreed. "Because of the COVID, I think everybody needs that," she said. "It's the magic of Christmas."