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Christmases past, fondly remembered

Growing up in the North End, I never felt a conflict between the religious and popular traditions of Christmas. We knew we were celebrating the birth of Jesus, and we never forgot that.

The midnight Mass was the central event of Christmas Eve, and putting cookies out for Santa Claus could never take away from that event. He was, after all, a saint. And the model of the manger with the baby Jesus looked even warmer and lovelier nested as it was among the many other Christmas decorations and lights. It was smaller than the tree, but it was no less important. All of this fit together with such ease for us.

In those days, my mother and aunts were always saving up for Christmas through a Christmas club. There was less money around; this seemed to make everything more valuable.

Seven Fishes! (photo courtesy Austin Kleon)

Seven Fishes! (photo courtesy Austin Kleon)

There was the food, of course. We had the fish on Christmas Eve: the baccalà, the calamari in gravy, and all the rest. My Uncle Vinnie would always make zeppole before dinner. We ate and laughed and enjoyed the time together.

For the kids, of course, the presents mattered most. As I remember it, most of the gifts were for kids and not for the adults. Santa Claus was the kids’ part of the holiday. We opened our gifts in the morning: me, my sister and my cousins.

I remember sledding down the path at the far end of Copps Hill Cemetery. We picked up a lot of speed along the way, and ran right into that iron fence at the bottom. But even more fun was using a refrigerator door as a sled. We counted ourselves lucky in the winter to find an old refrigerator sitting outside awaiting the garbage truck. In no time we would have the door off and haul it up to the Slide Park. We would get a running start at the top set of stairs and then go sliding down each of the other sets of stairs right to the bottom. If there were no cars there to stop us from sliding into Commercial Street we would build a wall of snow to do the job. Refrigerator doors make the best sleds.

We never had lights on the buildings in the North End of course, but my cousins in Saugus did. Later, they only put a small, lighted tree in their Bay window. Coincidently, at around the same time, their next-door neighbors decorated there house to the extent that people would drive from everywhere to see it. In his typically dead-pan manner, and with the street in front of their house full of cars, my Uncle Vinnie would stand in the bay window and say: “Look at that. Look at how they all come to see my tree.”

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

About James Pasto

James S. Pasto is a senior lecturer at Boston University, co-founder of the North End Historical Society and editor of the society's journal. To share stories about North End's past, e-mail pasto@bostoniano.info. To find out more about the North End Historical Society, visit alexgoldfeld.com/NEHS.html.