There are two problems with the North Pole: It is too cold, and there is no beer.

"Santa likes beer," said the red-suited, black-booted Alex Laham, 32, of Rockville, as he warmed up with a Sam Adams at the Madhatter on M Street NW last weekend. He spilled some on his hat, which was lying on the table.

Then another Santa, this one dressed all in black, launched into an unprintable rendition of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town." This was followed by gut-shaking laughter and applause from about two dozen other people dressed as Santa, plus two elves and a reindeer.

The group had taken over the bar. Startled patrons in civvies huddled in corners. Passersby did double-takes at the roomful of red. It was a Santa Rampage. And in the District and across the nation, it was just heating up.

"Santa needs some sophisticated adult entertainment," one of the Santas said before they stormed a strip club nearby.

During 12 hours last weekend, the Santas hit a half-dozen bars, two strip joints and a sex toys shop. They were chased out of an Internet cafe and accosted by cops. One Santa lost his driver's license and his credit cards while barhopping. Another was punched in the face by an angry man.

"We get a critical mass of Santas and anything can happen," said one Santa, a District resident who works for a government defense agency and wished to be known only as "Johnny Cash-anta -- The Santa in Black."

The scene has played out across the country every December since 1994 as hundreds of men and women don their gay apparel for Santa Rampage, also known as Santarchy or Santacon. It started in San Francisco with about 35 Santas as one of the many antics of the Cacophony Society, a loosely organized band of pranksters.

Since then, Santas have run amok through the streets of cities from Los Angeles to London. The District rampage, in its fourth year, was one of the first of this season. About 150 Santas were slated to stampede in New York this weekend, with other cities following suit the following weekend.

In past years, Santas have sung Christmas carols to police in riot gear in Portland. They have marched down Fifth Avenue in New York chanting "Charge it, charge it, charge it" and scaled the Brooklyn Bridge. And most of all, they have gotten drunk.

"The cheaper [the Santa suit], the better because they typically get covered in beer," said Rob Carlson, 23, of Parkville, Md., who paid about $8 for the suit and Christmas lights he wore last Saturday.

The point -- if there is one -- is to "shake people's ideas of Christmas up a little bit," says John Law, 44, a small business owner in San Francisco who was one of the three founders of Santa Rampage. It's about "people getting together and taking back the holiday, taking it back from the commercial, corporate control of this imagery."

A noble cause, certainly, but one that can get lost after a couple swigs of the holiday spirits.

"We're not making a stand or anything," said Matthew Dwyer, 24, a bartender who heads Drunken Santas, a New Orleans version of the rampage unaffiliated with the Cacophony Society. "It's just a bunch of idiots in Santa suits."

The band roaming Washington's streets last Saturday illustrated both points, alternately chanting "Shop! Shop! Shop!" and then drinking Scotch out of a Listerine bottle.

The rampage began about 2 p.m. on the Mall. They hauled sacks of goodies for people of all ages: from candy canes for wide-eyed children to Trojan Ultra Pleasure condoms for snickering adults. They plastered stickers reading "naughty" or "nice" on startled tourists. Then, as reindeer were in short supply, they mounted the horses on the carousel for a free ride.

But soon they grew weary. So the Santas hit the bars: the Madhatter, the Big Hunt, Cafe Odeon, Common Share, the Pharmacy Bar, Club Heaven and Hell. They dashed in and dashed out, dropping dollars and downing drinks until the twinkle in their eyes glazed over. They crossed taxicab zones and class lines, giving candy to homeless men downtown and leading the upper crust at Cafe Odeon in a rowdy chorus of "Ho, ho, ho!"

"It's a way to push people's normal social boundaries and see how they react," said Dustin Smith, 34, a District resident who organized the Washington rampage.

Sometimes, they pushed too far. Twice, passersby pelted the Santas with ice-packed snowballs. One Santa got decked by a woman's fiance after he pointed at her and admonished, "Naughty, naughty, naughty."

When they charged Ben 'n' Mo's Internet Cafe downtown, a Santa with green dreadlocks led the group, blaring "Santa needs pornography!" through a megaphone. Jaws dropped, eyes bugged, and business screeched to a halt.

That did not put the cafe's owner in the holiday spirit. Instead, he called the cops.

"This country has freedom of speech, but what they're doing is not freedom of speech. It's sabotage," said the owner, who did not want to give his name. "We do not need to be attacked and abused by drunks dressed like Santa Claus. . . . Santa is not a drunken fool."

Three police cars arrived within minutes. A few sober Santas defused the situation, with Dustin Smith telling one officer that they were just "spreading a little holiday cheer." The cop looked confused -- could he put Santa in handcuffs? -- and let them go with a warning not to use the megaphone indoors.

Others have not been so forgiving. Three Santas were arrested on charges of public intoxication, later dropped, during a 1995 rampage after they wreaked havoc at a store in San Francisco, according to the police report. The next year, Portland, Ore., police in riot gear trailed 200 Santas for two days as they ice-skated and careened through malls.

Mike Czaplinski, 37, of Gaithersburg was sitting by himself in the 1819 Club, a strip club on M Street, when he was suddenly surrounded by red hats and jingle bells. He did not seem fazed by the presence of the Christmas spirit. Neither were the Santas.

"Santa loves you more than beer!" one of them yelled to a dancer.

"We want to spread the Santa love!" another shouted.

"Santa is a healthy man with healthy ways," Czaplinski said. "What is Santa Claus ultimately if not about the unwrapping of presents? It's a very valid connection."

By midnight, the Santas were ruddy and rumpled and fading fast. The group had dwindled to about 15 and the rampage petered out about 2 a.m. They resumed their normal lives the next day -- computer engineer, retired professional dominatrix, mother of three -- hibernating until the next holiday season.

And what had they accomplished? They had a couple of laughs and some off-color stories to recount at cocktail parties. But how much holiday meaning can one glean from a bunch of quasi-anti-consumerist Santas who eat potato skins and drink beer?

The answer, of course, can be found at the bar:

"They're not grown up or mature," said Patrick Gray, 54, who was dining on soup and onion rings at the Madhatter when the Santas showed up last weekend. "But let's face it: Fun is contagious. [The Santa Rampage] is in its own childish realm. I think that's where people want Christmas to stay."

Are the

marauding

Santas making a statement about the crass corporate commercial- ization of Christmas, or are they just a bunch of idiots in Santa suits? You decide. Left, Santa Keith accosts a woman in her car; below, a pack of 20 Santas, led by Liza Santa, makes its way to a downtown bar and strip joint. A group of high school students from Arizona can't resist pelting the merry pranksters.Santa Don Michele de Claus eats fire while Santa Alex has a smoke.Police inform a group of Santas about the rules for disorderly conduct and public use of a megaphone. Santas Keith, left, and "Booger" imbibe during a night of naughtiness.