The Legend of the Castro’s Joint-Smoking Santa Claus
An oversize plexiglass Santa Claus with a three-foot-long joint once overlooked San Francisco’s Castro District every December. That pot-smoking Santa Claus was up on the rooftop of the popular Cafe Flore at Castro and Noe streets, creating a doobie-ous holiday attraction in the late 2000s that ensured pot-loving passersby were merrily on high.
Santa’s joint was a custom-built technical masterpiece. The end of Saint Nick’s spliff would actually glow red, and real smoke would puff out from it, creating the hilarious illusion that Santa was indeed lighting up his Christmas trees.
But in recent years, that beloved local favorite has curiously disappeared from the top of Cafe Flore. What ever happened to that blunt-smoking Santa Claus? And how did the fat man get his fattie?
SF Weekly dug deep into Santa’s sack to find the secret history of this short-lived green Christmas tradition.
Our story begins back in 2006, when MySpace was the most popular thing on the internet, California had just re-elected Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor, and the Castro was still reeling from a horrible Halloween night mass shooting that left nine people injured and marked the beginning of the end of that event. Cannabis was still in its “medical marijuana” phase where you needed a doctor’s card to buy pot, and dispensaries were still being routinely raided by the feds.
That was the year this Santa appeared in front of Cafe Flore, but he did not have a joint, and he was not on the roof. The cafe’s then-owner J.D. Petras had scored this roughly six-foot-tall plexiglass Santa Claus when a Seattle, Washington shopping mall went out of business and sold off all its holiday decorations.
The life-size Kris Kringle was placed in front of Cafe Flore’s outdoor dining patio, and made for a popular “sit on Santa’s lap” attraction in the Castro. This was in the era before smartphones, when we still took our pictures by lugging around heavy contraptions known as digital cameras.
J. D. Petras was a businessman, but also a pretty well-known local prankster, and an annointed member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence known as “Sister Porn Again.” Petras would also place a Burning Man statue on top of Cafe Flore every August, and co-founded a gay men’s Burning Man camp called Jiffy Lube.
In 2001, Petras had designed a giant animated sculpture of two 12-foot-tall men engaging in anal sex that was erected at Burning Man. Furious and very offended Nevada police demanded the sculpture be removed, which it was, but it established Petras as a folk hero for his creations of subversively funny large-scale artwork.
The shopping mall Santa in question was not originally intended to be a stoner Saint Nick smoking a roach. But his right hand, sculpted right next to his face, contained a perfectly cigarette-sized gap between his ring finger and pinky that was just begging for a holiday hooter.
Under Petras’ direction, a team of three artists spliffed up the Santa statue to refashion him with a joint that both lit up and blew real smoke. That process took two whole years. But each holiday season during the interim, the joint-less Santa was still placed in front of the Cafe Flore patio, and patrons had no idea how jolly that Santa Claus statue would soon get.
The joint itself was also made of fiberglass, so it could endure the annual December rains and wind. The design crew implanted a smoke machine inside his fiberglass casing, and put a red lighting mechanism inside the joint to create the appearance that the marijuana cigarette was indeed lit.
The fully functioning, joint-smoking Santa made his official Castro debut in December 2009. He was placed on top of the Cafe Flore’s roof, smack-dab in front of a billboard which often featured highly homerotic gay beefcake advertisements.
The juxtaposition of a large-scale Santa Claus smoking a joint, in front of a billboard frequently depicting hunky shirtless gay men, was an instant hit in the Castro. The Santa’s 2009 debut also coincided with the emerging popularity of smartphones, and owners of the just-released iPhone 3 (and its new competitor called Android) couldn’t get enough of snapping pictures of this distinctly only-in-San Francisco sight.
Saint Nick and his joint would be rolled back out for the next several Decembers. The display remained an attraction for a few glorious holiday seasons, but this Santa has not been seen at Cafe Flore for the last few years.
His disappearance was not a coincidence, because Cafe Flore is technically no longer Cafe Flore. Petras brought in new partners to manage the restaurant in 2014, though he retained ownership of the building. Then in 2017, that ownership group sold it to new owners, who have rebranded the restaurant and bar as simply Flore.
Flore’s new ownership team is led by Terrance Alan, himself a longtime activist in the San Francisco cannabis movement. Alan had previously been the head of the San Francisco Cannabis State Legalization Task Force that helped establish the recreational-use laws that went into effect here at the beginning of 2018.
But where is he now? Regrettably, the new Flore did not retain the old Cafe Flore Santa Claus sculpture. Alan tells SF Weekly that Santa was part of the purge of old equipment and furniture when the cafe changed hands in 2017.
According to Petras’ associates, the Santa was sold at a garage sale this past summer, to an unknown customer, and for an undisclosed price. Petras did not return comment for this article by press time, and we can only hope that Santa is still smoking somewhere.
But Flore’s future still looks green. Alan and the new ownership group recently won approval to open a new cannabis dispensary across the street, which will be known as Flore Store. So Cafe Flore’s legacy as the place where Dennis Peron met Brownie Mary and hatched plans for the original 1996 medical marijuana law Proposition 215 will live on.
Santa may be gone and his whereabouts unknown, but to us, he’ll always be the ghost of Christmas (joints) passed.