by Augustine Parziale
The summer of 2016 is quickly drawing to a close; the days are already growing shorter, children and their parents are preparing for another school year, and the hot, muggy weather will soon give way to the crisp, cool days of Autumn.
However, to those of us who call the North End home, the final weeks of summer can only mean one thing; feast season is upon us. These lively celebrations of Italian heritage that immigrants from the old country brought with them when they first settled in Boston’s oldest neighborhood over a century ago are still a welcome sight for a majority of the residents who call the North End home.
Lately, though, a small but vocal group of residents have begun to express the opinion that our feasts are more trouble than they’re worth and that it may be time to retire the tradition altogether. To the naysayers, the feasts simply exacerbate the troubles that plague all urban areas, especially one as cramped as the North End: noise, trash, traffic, the lack of parking, overcrowded streets.
As one might expect when a long-cherished tradition comes under attack, there has also arisen an equal, if not disproportionately strident, pushback against those who would discard annual summertime celebrations.
The prevailing attitude of these residents, most of whom are life-long North Enders whose parents, grandparents, and in some cases great grandparents also observed these holidays to the patron saints of various regions of Italy, is that anyone who doesn’t like the feasts should move elsewhere.
This posture isn’t without justification. A majority of those who oppose the feasts are people who didn’t grow up in our tightly-knit neighborhood and have no connection to the tradition, the heritage and the culture. Moreover, these individuals chose to move here because the North End offers all of all the conveniences of big city living with the ambiance and culture of a quaint European village. They knew that there would be trade-offs and inconveniences included in the bargain and were well aware of our summer tradition before they moved here.
Simply put, the slogan of many of us who would defend the old guard is, “the North End; love it or leave it.”
It is a message of defiance; a proud rebuke of these newcomers for their ignorance and impertinence. Again, it is justified and wholly understandable. It is also not the proper response to this grievance.
My cousin and I happened to be talking the other day about a recent well known and much discussed poll regarding whether the North End should continue hosting feasts. It was this very poll that had restarted the angry debate on the issue.
She had been looking through some old photos of her kids at St. Anthony’s Feast and it got her to thinking about our own childhood memories of the feasts and passing these traditions down to our own kids.
We reached the conclusion that we were blessed to grow up the way we did, with the people we grew up with, in the special place where we did and that the only natural reaction towards those who didn’t share that upbringing is pity.
It must be difficult to live in the greatest place on earth and feel like an outsider. To not know what it’s like to walk into the Saint Agrippina Society or mull around the chapel of the Madonna Della Cava and run into friends you haven’t seen in ages and pick up the conversation as though you’d had coffee together the previous evening.
I feel sorry for those who are unable to meet up with friends on some prime real estate on the corners of Hanover and Battery Streets to watch the tug of war and reminisce about things such as the time when the society members nearly dropped the statue or some other fond memory.
What else but sympathy could one possess for someone who would never know the pride of seeing her daughter or niece or the daughter of a best friend assume the starring role in the flight of the angel to conclude the Fishermen’s Feast?
How empty must it be not to have grown up in a place where you could walk into one of any number of open houses around the neighborhood during feast days and be treated as though you were in our mom’s living room?
And how could one harbor anger at one who will never feel the tug of nostalgia from holding his young son aloft to place the money calendar around the statue of Saint Anthony’s neck in the same spot your own father held you years before, while the majestic notes of the Roma Band playing Marcia Reale echoed through our canyons of brick, mortar and steel?
That’s not to say that the feasts aren’t with their downsides. Like the neighborhood that has hosted them for over 100 years, the feasts have change over the years and adapted to the times. In many ways they are much more like tightly marketed, over-commercialized street carnivals than the religious observations that our forebears intended. Many of the vendors aren’t even from the North End and have no connection to this place than the pursuit of a dollar.
However, that has never been what the feasts were about. They are about family and friends, a love of our neighbors and our neighborhood. Over the years we have accepted, albeit begrudgingly in some instances, and adapted to a myriad of changes to our neighborhood. The fact that we hold on to one of the few cherished strands that binds us all together from our earliest childhood memories throughout our entire lives and from one generation to the next, is more than understandable.
If, after all of this, you still can’t accept that and learn to love the North End for all of her beauty as well as her flaws, well then we just feel sorry for you.
And remind you that Beacon Hill is a nice neighborhood to live in too.