It’s been two months since Halloween — two months too long for people who like to dress up for the holidays. Three dozen of them gathered in San Francisco on Dec. 16, dressed in wigs and flowing tunics, for an under-the-radar event that is poised to become as high-flying as Santa’s reindeer: Caftan Christmas.
San Francisco friends Van Hedwall, a psychotherapist, and Joe Armenia, a massage therapist, created the roving party in 2011 and held it at Martuni’s piano bar. “We realized it was Christmas,” said Armenia, “so why not take it up a notch? Everybody wants something sparkly and festive and fun.”
Brainstorming for a concept, Hedwall, a former costume designer in Los Angeles, drew upon his memories of growing up in San Diego, where his mother wore a caftan to entertain in the backyard during the holidays — the essence of elegance. In a snap, a new tradition was born.
As the ranks swelled over time, the party outgrew Martuni’s and headed this year to the Stud, a gay bar in SoMa that is home to karaoke and drag nights. Attendees played off this year’s theme, “voluminous,” literally and conceptually.
“I really didn’t want to come tonight — I just rolled out of bed,” joked Jesus Rodriguez, 44, a massage therapist, among the first to arrive at 7:30 p.m. in a white comforter with a hole in the center (for his head) that he called the “Sealy comforter” caftan.
Daniel Hlad, 45, a development director wearing a wrap dress with a white hoop skirt attached to the bottom, laden with garlands and sparkling lights, teased, “It’s Oscar de la Renta — I’m surprised you didn’t know that.” Restaurant manager Bryan Price, 38, wore an evergreen tree costume with blinking lights. “I’m Dr. Seuss Christmas,” he said gleefully. “This is San Francisco — how it is, how it was, and how it always should be.”
Sean Greene, 43, director of the GLBT Historical Society, wore a white satin dress covered with a white cape and a white wig — “Phyllis Diller,” he said, “by way of 1960s girl group.”
Alan Boykin, 47, of San Mateo, and his husband, Jeffrey Smith, 46, wore foam wigs studded with blinking lights, layers of long beaded necklaces and caftans stitched by Hedwall for another theme party years ago.
“Voluminous and illuminous,” said Boykin. “Nothing too flashy — we don’t want to stand out in the crowd.”
Last year, the couple, both registered nurses, were unable to attend when Smith drew a shift in intensive care. This year’s tumultuous political climate and natural disasters were something they were happy to take a break from, if only for a night.
“I was at Target, shopping for makeup for the party, and a man with his teenage son said sarcastically, ‘Oh — you’re buying makeup to look pretty?’” Boykin said. “He didn’t know who I was or who I was buying for — it could have been for my grandmother, whose last dying wish was to look pretty for Christmas.”
Phillip Babcock, 52, an administrator at UCSF, attended for the first time with his husband, a Muslim from North Africa, simply because they had the freedom to do so.
“This is the year I was ready to shave my beard and go and have some fun in San Francisco and appreciate what we’ve got here,” Babcock said.
Among the few women attending: Shelley Stevens, 54, a counselor from Los Angeles and childhood friend of Hedwall’s, who described him as not only stylish, with a knack for bringing disparate groups of people together, but a “sweet man,” too.
Hedwall, who designed costumes for TV’s “Peewee’s Playhouse,” and later for Bay Area theater groups, switched careers decades ago. Since then, he has worked for Catholic Charities and the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corp., and now works with suicidal adolescents in Silicon Valley.
Caftan Christmas, he said, “is what I do to keep my own sanity. I love to see people create their own looks. It’s a minute to step away from reality and have fun.”