by Karen Cord Taylor
Have you ever been to a feast on the streets of the North End? I decided this is the summer I’m going. I knew little about them for many years. Recently, they seem to have proliferated.
It’s true, said life-long North End resident Nick Dello Russo. The reason I knew so little about them is that for awhile they were on life support. But now they’ve returned, with celebrations on at least half the weekends all summer.
The North End feasts were brought to America from Italy where each town had a patron saint, Nick said. Many were harvest feasts that provided an opportunity to get together with friends and neighbors and catch up on gossip. Most importantly, they were an opportunity to introduce single young people to one another.
Nick said wakes were also such an opportunity.
“How many times was I dragged to a wake of someone I didn’t know just to show me off?” Nick complained. But we digress.
The weekend feasts were (and still are) sponsored by local saints’ clubs. They recreate the festivals held in the fishing villages of Sicily and hill villages in the province of Avellino, from where many North Enders’ ancestors came.
They usually start on a Friday, but the big day is Sunday with a Mass and a band. Revelers march around the streets with the image of the saint and visit the other saints’ clubs. They invite the crowds to pin money on the saint’s garments.
“When I was a kid, the ladies would have a big sheet and you’d throw money into the sheet from your window,” Nick remembered. “Many old Italian ladies would make promises—if Saint Anthony would give them a certain favor they would march in St Anthony’s feast and you’d see scores of these old ladies carrying a large candle and marching barefoot. They’d have their sons or grandsons dressed up in a St. Anthony outfit with a rope around the waist. They were doing it to say thank you to the saint.”
All that stopped when the ladies died out and the North End changed after World War II. The overhead Central Artery cut off the neighborhood from the city. At the same time North Enders, along with other Bostonians, heard the call to the suburbs and were not interested in maintaining the old traditions. It was difficult to get the young people who stayed to join the religious clubs that sponsored the feasts, Nick said.
But recently, even more changes have come. The Central Artery was buried, opening up the neighborhood once more to the city. People remembered how good city life was and moved back. While less than one-third of North End residents now identify as Italian, everyone relishes the North End’s Italian flavor, and the neighborhood, with its many restaurants, has grown as a tourist destination.
This has its pluses and minuses, according to Nick. On the one hand, the weekend feasts are good for business. “The restaurants like them,” said Nick. “And it’s trying to keep a veneer of southern Italian culture.”
The feasts are money makers for the saints’ clubs. Money is pinned to the figure of the saint who is being celebrated. Big and little stands selling or promoting something pay a fee to set up along the parade route. Nick is skeptical of how much good the feasts do. “They generate a lot of money and [the clubs] do some charitable works,” Nick explained. “But no one has seen the accounting.”
The feasts draw more tourists than locals, which is one complaint. Another is that the feasts have been commercialized. While families used to set up tables in front of their houses and welcome visitors with home-made wine, now the tables are typically set up by commercial entities, so the celebrations haves lost some of their homey flavor. And the parades take over the narrow streets, making it even more difficult for cars to negotiate the North End’s challenging traffic patterns.
On the other hand, the feasts are great entertainment. In at least one feast, little girls, dressed up in finery, sail over the crowds on pulleys and drop garlands of flowers on the saint. It doesn’t get much better than that. Such entertainment is exactly what city life is all about—action and vitality. “I tell people if they want peace and quiet, move to Wellesley,” said Nick.
Street life such as this introduces non-Italians to traditional celebrations. It still enables people to meet one another and exchange gossip, and everyone patronizes the small, local businesses of which the North End still has plenty.
The biggest feasts are in August. The Fisherman’s Feast of the Madonna Del Soccorso di Sciacca is held from August 18 through August 21. Saint Anthony’s Feast takes place from August 26 through August 28. You can find the complete feast schedule on www.NorthEndBoston.com.
Nick is a fan of the feasts despite their drawbacks. He’s also a fan of the North End. He mentioned that a food emporium from New York called Eataly is moving into the Pru shopping mall this fall, recreating an Italian experience. “Why would they want Eataly when they can go to the North End?” he asked. The North End, even though its residents are no longer all Italian, has tenements with granite countertops and is a neighborhood in Boston, is still the real Italian experience.