Being Italian in Boston: The Feast of St. Anthony and my DNA

 

Every year, as the Boston summer begins, the tradition of “The Feasts” reestablishes itself with the stringing of red, green and gold lights from tenement to tenement across city streets in the Italian enclave of the North End.  Central to Italian American culture in the Boston area, the “feast” offers an unrivaled experience and a genuine ethnic immersion, as the throngs wind down narrow streets that have been shut off from traffic to accommodate the processions.  On a platform hoisted high in the air by its handlers, the statue of the “Saint of the Week” is paraded through the lanes, accompanied by the “Roma Band” (probably not the real name but that’s what we always called it) and a crowd of “bodyguards”, followed by a group of the faithful.  The statue, draped in dollar bills (and a few other denominations) that are pinned along the way to attached ribbons by those observing from the sidelines, is the main attraction of the entire affair.  It is a sight like no other, a display of “real Italian-American” culture, and a part of the rich tradition of the Boston Italian community.

As a teenager, I remember going to my friend Gail’s grandmother’s house on Snow Hill Street, on the high ground near the Copp’s Hill, where we would assemble prior to being released to the mayhem.  Once on the streets, carts selling arancini (by the way, none of my Italian friends remember those being made in our families), fried dough, pizza, sausages and peppers, and all sorts of quasi Italian fare lined the narrow lanes, with aromas  so unforgettable that I can smell them as I type. Nearly fifty years later, I draw easily upon the memories of those experiences, mostly because they haven’t changed one bit since that time, as I can testify from my recent visit to “the Feast”.

This weekend, my entourage of three including my Irish husband, Tim, and my Italian friend, Rick, ventured into the North End to experience the “100th Anniversary of the Feast of St. Anthony”.  Rick, a Wellesley native, had never been to the “Feast” and his prior impression in his own words was that it was “the closest you will ever get to human sacrifice in these parts.”  Oddly, his Italian family jumped the line and went straight to the suburbs, never hailing from the North End like the rest of my friends’ families. In the early part of the 20th century, the progression of the newly landed Italian immigrants dictated the move from the West End, to the North End, to the suburbs, usually north of Boston, and most of my friends could claim this history. Without this inborn connection, the North End, while culturally interesting, lacked the same natural familiarity to Rick that those of us with these roots share.  In any case, he was intrigued and determined to pin a dollar bill on the Saint, bringing a lifelong dream to fruition.

Perhaps Rick’s impressions of the potential for “human sacrifice” were confirmed as soon as we walked into the North End neighborhood. It was mass, directionless confusion, which reminded me immediately that some of the traditions of the feast might be considered an acquired taste to the unschooled.  If the Tony Manero- John Travolta style of Italian is not your cup of Limoncello, the feast season is not for you.  While the familiar scent of sausage and peppers filled the air, the long, winding lines awaiting the delicacy made for tough navigation through the crowd. Tables and portable awnings, where family and friends gathered, were set up in the streets just steps from the front doors of the three deckers, owned in some cases for over one hundred years by the same family.  Down the street, we spied the main stage, the site of performances that included accordion players and other musicians, accompanying singers belting out Louis Prima and Andrea Bocelli songs. Once we finally made our way to the venue, the performers did not disappoint as they engaged the audience in banter punctuated with thick Boston accents of the “fugetabout it” variety. Tans, muscles, black v-neck t-shirts, gold chains (so many gold chains), and Louis Vuitton satchels abounded, making for an interesting attraction and a confirmation of stereotypes that really don’t seem to bother the “real” Italians. It is all part of the allure of the North End and its original inhabitants.

Just around the corner from the stage, we found the evening’s resting place of the statue of St. Anthony, housed in a makeshift grotto of fabric and gold trim, with its loot proudly on display.  As Rick mounted the stairs to the statue, a woman handed him a tiny pin to use to apply the dollar bill to the collection. I wildly snapped photos with my cell phone and my real camera, determined to memorialize this moment. Somehow, this rite of passage was necessary and important for Rick, even if he was from Wellesley.

In terms of my own North End history, my father was born on Cooper Street, on the kitchen table, as the story was told. These facts legitimize my own connection to the neighborhood and my native Boston Italianness. As a child, my father often walked me by the door of 11 Cooper, sharing tales of his faded remembrance of his time there. Since his family relocated to Medford when he was only 5, the story was a short one but nonetheless provided a belonging to the place.  Today, whenever I am in the North End with my family, I make a point of leading the tour to the doorstep of #11, sharing this history with my children and grandchildren. In addition, I include a visit to St. Leonard’s Church where my father was christened.  It’s important that they understand their birthright to this neighborhood and the experience of being Italian-American.

This year, since it was the 100th anniversary, a special attraction was added to the celebration.  St. Leonard’s hosted relics from St. Anthony himself.  As Catholics and Italians, this was a big deal and we were determined to set our gaze on these holy objects. In true Catholic form, the relics were of a gory nature; yet, we were spellbound. Skin from the cheek of the Saint, in addition to his “floating rib”, was held in suspended animation, ensconced in gold, and prominently placed near the altar at the front of the church. The exhibit added to our evening’s adventure and, in an odd way, confirmed our Catholicness since we were not grossed out totally by the nature of the display.

The Feast of St. Anthony, the last feast of the summer, holds additional significance for me and my progeny. My parents often spoke of the feast in 1955, which was the scene of the first meeting of my mother and father. Despite being in other relationships at the time, my mother clearly made an impression on my father who wasted no time in contacting her once they each had broken up with their respective love interests (who just happened to be brother and sister).  They dated, married, and the rest is history – I’m here, as are the next two generations behind them, making the Feast of St. Anthony a legendary and formative event in our family’s story.

While the celebration of “the Feasts” marks time and upholds tradition, for me, there is an inherent value in remembering and connecting with my roots through the experience. As generations are born and our elders pass away, we move farther away from those who came before us and the history that molded them and their personal stories. Honoring the past and appreciating the richness of the culture and customs that are part of our history and our faith ensure that their memories live on. And I am surprised that I feel a deep “pride” that this experience is in my DNA. But as I walk the streets of the North End, I am a part of the pavement, the bricks, and the celebration of what it means to be a “real Italian-American” Bostonian.

 

 

 

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