Continuing a long-running tradition, Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar offers a spot for regulars and newcomers to commune on Christmas Day.

Like every Christmas throughout its eight-and-a-half decades — excluding 2020, for obvious reasons — the South Philly institution is open for a full day of business.

Customized ornaments decorate the Christmas tree at Ray's. (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)

Customized ornaments decorate the Christmas tree at Ray's. (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)

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The sandwich board sign goes up, as always, when the doors open at 7 a.m. On today’s list: Cab Calloway, Jimmy Buffet, and baby Jesus.

It’s Christmas Day at Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar, the South Philly shot-and-a-beer destination that, last month, celebrated its own 85th anniversary. And, like every Christmas throughout those eight-and-a-half decades — excluding 2020, for obvious reasons — the bar is open for a full day of business.

Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar on Christmas morning. (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)

“We’re there for the people that need us to be there,” said Kristie Pagliaro Noel, who’s been tending bar at Ray’s for 18 years, and is on the morning shift. Today, she said, is no different.

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It’s business as usual except for a few flourishes for the holiday. Behind the counter, cider simmers in a crockpot, ready to be served with a choice of rum or whiskey. There are chocolate chip oatmeal cookies, baked by evening bartender Michael Woloszczuk, to be distributed. On the TV, “A Christmas Story” wins out over SYFY’s “Letters from Satan Claus,” likely followed by more holiday movies until the Eagles’ kickoff in the afternoon.

Cookies and cider are available throughout the day for patrons. (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)

By 9 a.m., conversation is already flowing between a growing group of regulars. Among the first on the scene are Tom and Lorraine, stopping in to wish all their friends and bartenders a merry Christmas morning before getting their day started with their families.

“We came to see this couple, too,” Lorraine says excitedly about a pair of new arrivals as enthusiastic greetings and updates on a sick dog are shared.

Now retired from a career in hotel management, David Brouse has been frequenting Ray’s for 15 years, Christmas Days and Thanksgivings included. “It’s a great spot,” he said. “Almost from the first visit, you’re family.” His plans for the afternoon revolve around cooking a big meal, “hopefully after being sufficiently inspired,” he smiled, holding up his drink.

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Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar has been open for every Christmas throughout its 85-year-run, only missing 2020’s celebration due to the pandemic. (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)

While Ray’s proximity to famed cheesesteak purveyors Pat’s and Geno’s brings in a steady stream of tourists, Pagliaro Noel doesn’t anticipate many today, instead expecting a mix of regulars and people who either don’t go away for the holidays or are trying to recuperate from “family fatigue.”

“[I’m] bracing myself for a trip to my brother’s,” one patron, who asked to remain anonymous, concurred. He mentioned the likelihood of bookending the family visit with a return to Ray’s.

Another regular, Frank Mami, admittedly “not a Christmas dude,” said he annually includes Ray’s in his day’s routine — a horror movie in the morning before coming in to “get a load on with my buddies.” It’s BYO for food at the bar, but Mami predicts popping out for Chinese before checking back in later in the evening.

“Everybody knows everybody,” he said, pointing down the counter and explaining his connection to one regular after another. “You hang out long enough, you’ll become a part of the family,” he said, “whether you like it or not.”

A string of photos by the Christmas tree display patrons’ pets. (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)

Favorably likening the bar to a community center, frequent patron JP Ryan said that, by staying open on Christmas, Ray’s provides a service, not just for regulars and revelers, but those seeking the company of others.

“It’s a good meeting place for a lot of people that don’t have that kind of family structure in their life,” he said. “It’s very non-judgmental, very supportive.”

That balance, he explained, between the tight-knit camaraderie it offers and being “a place for everybody that doesn’t have a place,” is what makes Ray’s his favorite bar in the city.

“We’re like soft pretzels here,” he said. “Hard and crusty on the outside, and salty. But we’re all soft on the inside.”

Ray’s first opened its doors in 1938, under ownership of Anthony “Ray” Capozzoli, a year before the birth of his son, current owner Lou.

“My father would say, ‘if we close, [our regulars] might go to another bar and like it better,’” Lou Capozzoli laughed. His mother, he recalled, would bring down home cooked meals for patrons on Christmas Day.

Lou Capozzoli, 84, took over the bar after his father’s passing in 1997. (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)

At 84, Capozzoli estimates he’s spent 40 of those years behind the bar, including several Christmas days, albeit often stepping away to tend to his side gig as a musician and stage performer. It’s a flair for live entertainment that he’s brought to Ray’s since taking over ownership after his father’s passing in 1997, establishing raucous weekly karaoke nights and regular performances with his ensemble the Rage Band, which produced its first recording this year with Adam Weiner of Low Cut Connie in November, to mark the bar’s 85th anniversary.

That was just one of the year’s highlights — Capozzoli reenacts his reaction to seeing Ray’s featured in the recent Eagles’ animated Christmas special by throwing his head back and yelling upwards, “Dad! Did you see that?”

Staff stockings hang over the bar at Ray’s. (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)

It’s all been “an honor,” he said, of seeing the bar immortalized, and of his own role in its 85-year-run. “Everything I do is for my father.”

As for continuing Ray’s tradition of staying open on Christmas Day, “It means that people always have a place to go to.”

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