They started at 10 a.m. Saturday, hitting the bars along South Street, Old City and elsewhere, looking for a bracer against the cold and wind on what promised to be a very long and party-filled day.

By 3:30 p.m., however, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Santas, scantily clad elves, a few Waldos, and at least two snowmen - one abominable, the other more benign but wearing a hat with the word Guinness on it - had taken up positions in front of Finnegan's Wake, waiting to run en masse to Festival Pier for a night of partying.

When fireworks signaled the 4 p.m. start of the race, everyone proceeded at his or her own pace rather than en masse over the three-block course along Spring Garden Street across Delaware Avenue to the pier, where music from the promised 10 bands had already started blaring.

This was the annual "Running of the Santas," an event originating in Manayunk in 1998. From 40 people in Santa suits pub-crawling along Main Street, the event has blossomed into one that draws thousands of participants in Philadelphia and 12 other cities in the United States.

The 2010 event in Philadelphia drew 5,000 Santas, although Saturday's numbers appeared not to be that large. It couldn't have been the temperature - mid-40s and windy at 4 p.m. - since thousands came to the 2009 event when 23.5 inches of snow buried the city and public transit was shut down for the day.

Proceeds from the event, which includes a "Hottest Santa Contest" - which explains the number of scantily clas female elves - benefit local charities.

"It's a social event," said a Santa who identified himself only as "Paul," adding that he and "all of my friends" had come out for it for the first time this year.

One of those friends dragged Paul away, shouting that the race was about to start.

The Santa costumes fell into a range almost as large as the number of participants. Paul and friends wore the traditional hats but street clothes, but some revelers were outfitted in complete costumes.

The selection of whiskers ranged from painted on to clipped on to "I've been growing this for years and I'm older than I look."

While the throng appeared to be well-behaved - there were several burly security guards keeping crowd control outside Finnegan's Wake and checking IDs of those going in - it was a party and, well, the carry-the-beer-in-a-paper-bag rule was not being enforced.

The police were too busy concentrating on keeping traffic and revelers from colliding. There were a few near-misses, including that of a small elf and a large bus that brought a gasp from onlookers.

As Paul said, however, it was all in fun, a place for old friends to gather, and new ones to be made.

As one young woman remarked to her friend as they waited to cross Delaware Avenue,

"I've made so many friends today, I just wish I could remember their names."

Contact staff writer Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472, aheavens@phillynews.com or @al at Twitter.