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In Jose Pistola’s Christmas Smackdown Bar Crawl, Philly bars go over-the-top to be the decorating champion

A panel of Jewish beer reps and brewers will decide the winner.

Joe Gunn, co-owner of Jose Pistola's, stands amid a sea of thousands of paper snowflakes, an annual part of the Jose Pistola's Christmas Smackdown Bar Crawl.
Joe Gunn, co-owner of Jose Pistola's, stands amid a sea of thousands of paper snowflakes, an annual part of the Jose Pistola's Christmas Smackdown Bar Crawl.Read moreCourtesy Rachel Del Sordo

Update: Jose Pistola’s won the 2019 Christmas Smackdown.

For Sara Walker, general manager at Jose Pistola’s, Christmas is a year-round affair.

“I know it looks funny when I’m standing behind the bar, cutting paper snowflakes in July, but if you want to create a ginormous event, you have to work on it nonstop,” Walker says.

The ginormous event is the Jose Pistola’s Christmas Smackdown Bar Crawl — Walker’s favorite day of the year. It pits Center City bars against each other in a heated decorating contest involving a jungle of paper snowflakes, countless sparkly embellishments, and over-the-top stunts like a human Elf on the Shelf.

This year’s event, the fifth iteration of the smackdown, takes place on Tuesday. Jose Pistola’s will compete against Varga Bar, BAR, and Ebenezer’s, the holiday pop-up bar upstairs from Pearl Tavern. As per tradition, a panel of a Jewish beer reps and brewers will judge the event and declare the winner.

“I always wanted to make an adult’s version of driving around and looking at Christmas lights,” says Jose Pistola’s co-owner Casey Parker. “And we just thought it’d be funny to have our Jewish friends judge us on Christmas.”

Walker has been gearing up since January, taking scissors to card stock to craft paper flowers of all sizes. On Tuesday night, a thousand flowers — hand-sprayed with glitter — will be scattered around Jose Pistola’s first floor. It’s part of Walker’s “overgrown secret garden” vision, inspired in part by Longwood Gardens.

Judges will walk from bar to bar with a scorecard broken into categories: illumination, most delicious, staff participation, Christmas spirit, and “Where’s the dreidel?” They’ll rate the competitors on a scale of 1 to 8 — a nod to the eight candles in a menorah — but bars that don’t include a dreidel or other representation of Hanukkah receive an automatic zero.

In 2017, BAR hosted a “dreidel gambling ring,” inviting the judges to place bets with chocolate coins. It was the same year that BAR took first place, and the one and only time Jose Pistola’s didn’t take the prize.

“Sara was so sad. She was just straight up mad at me,” says BAR owner Terry Leach, referring to his institution’s win over Walker’s. “We also had this big snow machine blowing artificial snow on you as you walked in, sitting next to a 15-foot blow-up Santa sleigh on the sidewalk, and shots on fire for this flammability category. ... That category got eliminated for obvious reasons.”

Every year, BAR anchors a Christmas tree to its ceiling, cascading down like an organic chandelier. But it takes more than just extravagant ornaments to win, Leach says. It’s nearly impossible to out-decorate Walker. The smackdown is her sport, and she’s playing all year.

The signature feature of Jose Pistola’s is paper snowflakes, and servers and bartenders are enlisted in an all-hands-on-deck, year-round effort.

“It’s side work — you can’t get rolled silverware here, but you can get a snowflake,” Parker says.

This year, 3,000 five-sided flakes, stapled with white string lights, will dangle from Jose Pistola’s ceilings to create a mini winter wonderland. Holly will wrap around every railing. Giant balloons will mimic oversize ornaments, and the entire outside of the building with shine with colorful lights.

The larger surprises — secrets Walker wouldn’t reveal — aren’t put in place until the final days before the event.

“Last year, I didn’t sleep for a day and a half. It was reminiscent of being a college student — lots of coffee,” Walker says.

To have a shot at trumping Jose Pistola’s, the other bars often resort to surprise performances. These make for some of the most memorable parts of the night.

“At Varga Bar last year, they wrapped the entire exterior with wrapping paper," says Matt Satten, a smackdown judge and sales representative for Founders Brewing Co. “We unwrapped the paper, and out came carolers singing dirty carols to us. Basically everybody’s just finding new ways to smack Christmas into our face.”

But Jose Pistola’s proves a challenging opponent in the entertainment arena, too. Last year, in a nod to A Christmas Carol, staff dressed up as ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future to lead participants from bar to bar. They also threw a Hanukkah tailgate party in the parking garage across from the bar.

“There was a giant dreidel, a bunch of latkes, and a full spread of Chinese food from Han Dynasty,” says Walker. “It overlooked our roof, which was decorated with an 8-foot snowman, a big sleigh with a reindeer, a blow-up cactus, and ‘Christmas’ spelled out in lights.”

While most indoor decorations are handcrafted, Walker estimates that she’s spent around $2,000 this year alone in supplies. Excluding the snowflakes, creations are often reused, like a mini Christmas tree made out of shredded Founders beer cans, its silver and green aluminum branches glistening in the light.

With new themes and additions every year, each display becomes grander than the last.

“It’s my favorite holiday, but my family lives far away,” says Walker. “And my fiancé is Jewish, so we don’t really do Christmas at home. Christmas at the bar is my Christmas. It pulls together our staff like a big family, and all of my friends come out and last-minute craft when I’m borderline pulling my hair out. It’s crazy, but I love it.”

On a Tuesday afternoon, two weeks out from the smackdown, Walker mans a paper cutter in Jose Pistola’s upstairs bar. She’s surrounded by staff, each taking on a different decorating task.

“You know people who do tiling and have those knee pads? I need those,” says Paige Gottfried, her head peeking out from beneath a two-top table.

A server at Jose’s and a third-year volunteer, Gottfried was transforming the table’s leg into a candy cane, using computer paper and red wire ribbon.

“Our regulars love it, and I’m able to get bragging rights when I tell my tables I helped create it,” Gottfried says.

As for predictions on this year’s winner, judges say the top spot remains anyone’s to take.

“Jose’s has definitely set the bar, but everyone responds by taking it up a notch the next year,” says returning judge Lee Porter, noting that plenty of kegnog (kegged eggnog) fuels the experience. “It’s somewhat of an industry secret, but both the crowd and the ridiculous presentations keep getting bigger and bigger — I never in a million years expected what this has become.”