In the lead-up to Christmas 1993, 16 friends got together to visit some of Wollongong's drinking holes and spread festive cheer.
Thirty years on, that modest pub crawl has become SantaFest, a major event that draws thousands from the Illawarra and further afield to enjoy some of the city's favourite pubs and, in the spirit of Christmas, raise money for charitable causes.
Since its inception the event has donated over $2 million for such charities as the Salvation Army, Disabled Surfers Association of Australia, Escabags and the Disability Trust.
The Disabled Surfers Association's South Coast branch has been going now for 30 years, the same as the pub crawl.
The organisation takes people with disability surfing in a fun and safe environment.
Last year, it received over $8000 through SantaFest which went towards a new trailer to transport the equipment needed for its events.
South Coast branch vice president Bryan Rugg said the organisation was entirely reliant on donations.
"If it wasn't for donations like this, it would be very difficult to operate like we do," Mr Rugg said.
The charity is set to receive another boost through this year's SantaFest, which will be held on December 9.
"This year as one of the recipients, some of the money will probably go towards new surfboards as we revamp our surfboards going into the new season," Mr Rugg said.
A longtime beneficiary of SantaFest is the Salvation Army, which puts the money towards its First Floor program.
This includes support groups, counselling, Art 4 Healing, drug and alcohol counselling and other services for the community.
Illawarra public relations and fundraising coordinator Karen Walker said donations such as those from SantaFest were vital to the program's operation, especially as demand rose with cost of living pressures and interest rate rises.
SantaFest founder and organiser Neil Webster said he was glad for the amount the event had raised for charity over the years.
"I'm proud of it, but what I'm proud of most is it's not me, it's the community," Mr Webster said.
As well as charity, a key part of the event is encouraging people to interact with alcohol and socialise in a fun, safe way, the impetus for which was a vicious alcohol-fuelled attack on Christmas Eve 1997 in Hurstville, which left Mr Webster in a coma with a shattered jaw.
With everyone dressed up and raising money for good causes, Mr Webster said SantaFest made people feel part of a team and less like strangers.
"There's an instant camaraderie built when people are dressed the same and there for the same reason," he said.
Mr Webster said he was looking forward to building the event back to the heights it reached pre-COVID in 2019, when almost 10,000 people attended.
For North Wollongong Hotel publican Josh Hill, the event is something his team looks forward to all year.
"Giving back to charities and community is something we cherish," he said.
The event was easy to run, Mr Hill said, and last year there were no incidents, with everyone "in good spirits and on their best behaviour".
This year's SantaFest will take in 14 venues and run from noon till late.
For more information or tickets, visit santafest.com.au.
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