For me, the holiday season doesn’t begin until Joe Jost’s saloon holds the Great Lighting of the Antlers. Or Unlighting of the Antlers, depending on your point of view.
This once-a-year ceremony involves an old string of 15 lights wrapped around some ancient deer antlers over the bar.
As the suspense mounts, 15 customers draw numbers ($1 each) from a schooner. The strand is then plugged in and the winner is the person whose number matches the number of lights that blaze forth.
“It’s our only Christmas decoration,” said owner Ken Buck, who unplugs the lights in January but doesn’t bother to take them down.
This year, the winner — who left before anyone got his name — captured the $15 jackpot with No. 12, meaning three lights were out.
This rite began as a joke about half a century ago — no one's quite sure of the exact date — and has become a tradition.
And, Jost’s, built in 1924, likes tradition.
The Anaheim Street bar has old-time brass foot-rails, wooden seating booths, a wooden phone booth (with no phone) and an ancient barber’s sink from the day when bartenders also cut hair.
The walls carry photos of Poly and Wilson athletics in the 1930s and pin-up calendars dating back to 1962. Its (working) peanut machine is 108 years old.
Even with his reverence for the past, Buck replaces the lights when the number of functioning ones falls to 9.
But he doesn't buy new ones.
“Then there’d be no contest," he noted. "They’d all light up and that would be the end of a tradition."
Finding old lights isn’t easy. Luckily, he has been able to build up his reserves.
"I heard from a friend who had some old ones packed away in his garage,” he said.
Oddly, or eerily, enough, the number of working lights actually increases between years once in a while.
“Ghosts, maybe,” Buck said.
Usually, though, the passage of time and the stress of being dusted insure that the deteriorating process will continue.
Explained Buck: “We dust every six months.”
Whether the place needs it or not.
As he goes house to house, I hope that Santa has better chimney directions that those offered by this sign did.