3 November 2023

SantaFest Pub Crawl celebrates 30 years of festive fun and raising funds

| Jen White
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A group of people, some in Christmas costumes, at a bar.

Neil Webster (centre) with Salvation Army’s Karen Walker and Bryan Rugg from Disabled Surfers Association, joined by Santa’s helpers at the SantaFest Pub Crawl launch. Photo: Jen White.

The world’s longest continually run Santa Pub Crawl will celebrate its 30th birthday in Wollongong on 9 December.

Started by a group of mates in 1993, the SantaFest Pub Crawl has become a major Christmas drawcard for attendees from Sydney, the Shoalhaven and the ACT, as well as international visitors keen to share the festive spirit.

In its biggest year, 2019, almost 10,000 people decked out in Christmas costumes of all shapes, sizes and descriptions joined in.

It even managed to survive during the COVID-19 Christmases with a Livestream Santa Fest from the upstairs deck at its traditional home, the North Gong Hotel.

As well as providing a day of fun, the event has donated more than $2 million to local charities since adding fundraising in 1998, through a ticketed entry fee, donations and sales of merchandise.

Event organiser and one of the original group of 16 mates Neil Webster is hoping for a bumper crowd this year to help raise vital funds for charities, while celebrating the festive season in a fun and safe environment.

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“When my 15 friends and I gathered at the North Wollongong Pub in 1993, we never could have imagined how a simple idea to share the Christmas spirit would end up 30 years down the track,” he said.

“We had six venues to visit that year. This year we’re working with 15 venues and are aiming to build back up to our pre-COVID attendance and fundraising goals.

“It’s a weird thing for me, it’s kind of like watching your child grow up.

“You see the change it goes through, you see how you add things, how it changes, how it morphs, how the personality of the event changes, and then also how its purpose has changed.

“When we originally started this, it was a way of spreading some Christmas spirit, then it became the charity event and the charity event got bigger and bigger and we had to find other ways to generate money to help with those causes.

“It’s been beautiful to watch it grow and get to this point today at 30 years of age, where it’s now sort of settled into life, but it’s one of those things we want to keep evolving and we want to keep improving on.”

A large crowd of people dressed in Christmas costumes.

A huge crowd of almost 10,000 people attended SantaFest 2019. Photo: Supplied.

Funds raised through SantaFest support organisations and programs including the Salvation Army Illawarra, Disabled Surfers Association, KidsWish and The Disability Trust, and EscaBags which supports victims fleeing domestic and family violence.

Neil was the victim of alcohol-fuelled violence when he was attacked on Christmas Eve in Sydney in 1997, and since then the event has become more focused on changing people’s attitude to socialising with alcohol at pubs.

That theme is extended through the funding it provides to the Salvation Army’s Jayne Wilson Foundation drug and alcohol program.

Salvation Army Public Relations and Fundraising Coordinator Karen Walker said the foundation was named in honour of Jayne who founded the Army’s First Floor program and who sadly died on Christmas Day.

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The program offers drug and alcohol counselling at low rates as well as support groups for individuals and families suffering from addiction.

It has been so successful locally that the model is now used throughout Australia and overseas.

“There’s a lot of need but not a lot of funding, so the money raised by SantaFest really helps us to be able to offer the program,” Karen said.

For the first time this year, Street Kind will be attending the event to offer help to people who may be alcohol affected, need first aid or even just need a phone recharged to ensure they get home safely.

Entry to SantaFest ranges from $15 to $40 and includes access to the shuttle buses provided to transport guests around the venues. First release tickets are on sale until Sunday 5 November; second release tickets from Monday 6 November to Friday 8 December. Tickets will also be available at the gate. For more information and tickets, visit the SantaFest website.

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