Santa Pub Crawl 2019: Wollongong launching its own festival as Australia's home of Santa

Wollongong's annual Santa Claus Pub Crawl is set to get even bigger.

When the pub crawl celebrates 25 years this December it will be the beginning of a new chapter in the event’s history, giving the city its own themed festival that may eventually last a whole week.

Future possibilities could include a Santa Eat Street-style event during the week or Santa-themed children’s activities in local shopping centres.

Founder Neil Webster’s vision is for Santa Fest the Gong to rival the Parkes Elvis Festival, Deni Ute Muster and Tamworth Country Music Festival for its ability to attract visitors from interstate and overseas to dress up and participate.

It is something the annual pub crawl is already achieving but Mr Webster wants to grow it responsibly by initially running three events over the weekend next year.

The aim is to provide something for everyone including families and children.

In 2019 Santa Fest the Gong will include the annual pub crawl on the Saturday. Followed on Sunday by Christmas carols in Lang Park and a Santa cycle between Wollongong and Towradgi along the Blue Mile.

It is also hoped the Illawarra Hawks will be able to host a home of Santa home game at the WEC. 

Bigger is better: Neil Webster and his family early in the afternoon at North Gong Hotel during the 2017 Santa Claus Pub Crawl. Picture: Robert Peet.

Bigger is better: Neil Webster and his family early in the afternoon at North Gong Hotel during the 2017 Santa Claus Pub Crawl. Picture: Robert Peet.

It would be tied into a ticketing package where fans by a basketball ticket and dress in red and white for a home game and then get access to one or more of the Santa Fest events. A percentage of the ticket price would go to charity. 

The concept builds on Mr Webster’s original festive idea. He was also inspired to run an event where people have a good time while drinking responsibly by an incident one Christmas Eve 1997. 

He was a victim of alcohol related violence after a night out with friends in Sydney.

Attacked by five men while leaving a pub at Hurstville he vowed to bring the spirit of Christmas back after having his jaw broken in two places, three cracked ribs and concussion.

Mr Webster spent many weeks in hospital and lost 13kg while eating through a straw.

During that time he became determined to help change people’s attitudes towards socialising with alcohol at pubs.

Santa Fest the Gong will be the next step in the evolution of that dream.

“Last year I did the Santa Fest Carols event with the Salvos and Disability Trust in Lang Park which is happening again,” he said.

“Next year we are going to introduce a third event which will be a family bike ride. On the Sunday we do the carols from 3pm and bike ride would be from 11am to 2pm. The idea will be you can stop off and have lunch or a coffee along the way anywhere along the foreshore.”

“It means people my age who have been doing the pub crawl for 25 years and have kids now and still want to be involved with their family can dress up in red and white together for one or more activity.”

Other organisations can organise their own events with a common theme everyone dressing in colourful Christmas gear to create a happy festive festival spirit across the weekend.

Each event is encouraged to support a charity.

“The Salvos are happy. I have been giving them over $100,000 a year for the past six or seven years. It is estimated we have given them $1.5 million over the last 25 years. Considering we only started fundraising in year 10 that is not bad. They are really happy with what we are giving them already. It covers what they need to do to coordinate the programs we contribute towards.”

After the 2017 volunteer run pub crawl there was $9000 left over after all the donations were made and the buses and other bills were paid.

So Mr Webster gave the money to the Disabled Surfers Association.

He is still deciding on a charity for the bike ride and is interested in supporting something along the lines of a family mental health initiative. 

“The Disability Trust gets the majority of the proceeds from the carols and the Salvos get the majority from the pub crawl,” he said.

“As the pub crawl has grown over the years Wollongong by default has become the home of Santa Claus. It is something the city has become famous for and can become a major tourist event. I thought why don’t we make Wollongong Australia’s home of Santa.”

“There are now seven other Santa Pub Crawls operating in Australia that are a result of this one. I have helped them set up. But this is the biggest and the best.

“Besides changing the name and making it easier to promote to corporates Santa Fest the Gong will be easier to grow.

Wollongong’s reputation as Australia’s home of Santa will help fill hotels, cafes, other bars, clubs, taxis, uber drivers, restaurants and shops in early December.

Early bird tickets for the 2018 Santa Claus Pub Crawl went on sale at the beginning of October. And the wrist bands can be collected from North Gong Hotel in the week leading up to the December 8 event.

More than 90 per cent of the ticket price already goes to charity. And new this year is the online portal has a donation button for anyone who would like to give more. 

There are 19 venues taking part this year. For many it is their biggest night of the year which means more casual employment in the city that night.

Mr Webster has continued to use all local businesses for everything from printing and graphics to transport. And would like to see that continue as  Santa Fest the Gong festival grows.

For the 2018 event his team of volunteers have not only organised more buses but are starting them from Midday.

Towradgi Beach Hotel is taking part and the bus loop will include it and Illawarra Brewing Co in Montague Street. The new Furphy Bar in Harbour Street is also joining in.

“Each of the venues this year are being encouraged to have a food and drink special to promote activities at their venue,” Ms Webster said.

Increasing the amount of food has been a major push in recent years.

“From day one I have always wanted to influence the way people behave with alcohol around Christmas time,” he said.

“I didn’t want it to just become a drunken fest. I want to see people drink but behave responsibly and have a good time.” 

Asked if he expects to see more people wear silver tinsel for the 25th anniversary Mr Webster said he was looking forward to what they might come up with.

Many spend 12 months planning their outfits and he expects some will make an extra special effort for the silver anniversary.

“The costumes have become more extravagant and varied every year. It is always a pleasure to see the new ones.”

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This story Wollongong set to become Australia’s home of Santa first appeared on Illawarra Mercury.