Eric Palladini, kneeling, and Doug Crandall, right, decorate one of the lions on the Taft Bridge in Northwest Washington. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

For a quarter-century, the lions flanking the historic Taft Bridge have brought a Christmas smile to countless Washingtonians, their concrete majesty softened every December with merry red bows and green garlands.

“Isn’t it nice how they do that?” you may have thought to yourself crossing the Connecticut Avenue span over Rock Creek.

Hmmm, and who is they?

Well, it’s time you knew: It’s not the city that decorates the lions.

On Sunday, Bill Corcoran and Eric Palladini let us infiltrate their annual lion-decorating party. Who are they? Just a couple that lives around the corner from the bridge’s southern end in Kalorama, who take it upon themselves to make sure the gray beasts are properly decked for the holidays.

Is that allowed?

A guest watching below gives pointers. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

(**Update, 12/19: The city responds)

“We never talked with anyone about it,” Corcoran, 70, told us. “We’ve never asked for a permit of any kind. We just quietly did it.”

Before the decorating began Sunday, about 50 guests, veteran and new, filled Corcoran and Palladini’s one-bedroom apartment, nibbling on passed hors d’oeuvre and chattering like members of a secret society about the ritual to come.

“I’ve lived here for years,” Annette Gillis said, “and I always thought the city did it.” Buck Montgomery said he assumed at first his friends simply hosted a party timed to coincide with a municipal wreath-hanging.

“Are we really going to decorate lions?” exclaimed an arriving first-time guest. She brought some ornaments, just in case.

Memories are hazy, but Corcoran told us he probably first decorated the lions in 1986, by himself. When Palladini returned to their D.C. home after grad school, it became their tradition.

In the mid-’90s, the deteriorating statues were removed for restoration; when new lions were placed in 2000, the two resumed their annual project. After forgetting one year, Palladini, 56, who works for the World Bank, resolved that “the only way to guarantee we do it is if we have a party.”

“We measure the years by this party,” said guest Carlton Gleed, a participant of a dozen years. “A lot of faces we see every year, only here.”

But the decorating part — is it dangerous?

“The lion on the far side [of Connecticut]?” said Gleed. “You look down, and it’s a sheer drop to the creek.”

“It’s strictly not legal, I guess,” neighbor Joan Roberts said merrily. “We have no permission whatsoever!” (A 30-year resident of the nearby Valley Vista condominium building, she maintains that whoever decorates the lions on the north end of the bridge — this year, a strand of ornaments and greenery — started years after Corcoran and Palladini.)

Some guests theorized that Corcoran, a lawyer most recently with the Senate ethics committee, uses some secret hand gesture to ward off cops. But Corcoran said they’ve simply never had a problem with law enforcement. Once, a uniformed Secret Service officer stopped and asked what they were doing. “We’re decorating the lions,” they told him. The man wished them Merry Christmas and drove on.

As night and a steady drizzle fell on the bridge around 5:30 p.m., the party drifted outside. Palladini and guest Doug Crandall climbed the base of the eastern lion. They draped a necklace of pine boughs around it and then a massive red bow. Everyone clapped and took photos, then moved across the street to bedeck the other lion. They’ll take the decorations down on Jan. 6, otherwise known as Epiphany, or the 12th day of Christmas.

Update: City response to Taft Bridge lion decorations, 12/19/12

Drinks in hand, guests watch the lion-decorating. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Crandall steps carefully around the lion’s paws to secure the pine boughs. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

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