The Italian Feasts of New York City

The New York City I grew up in is gone. It has been replaced by a new city, different in many ways and with ongoing challenges, but not without an endless variety of vibrant neighborhoods and ethnic influences.

But I have to say that I deeply miss what “Little Italy” once was. It was the home of my ancestors, two wanderers from Italy who came alone from Calabria and Tuscany, met in the Big Apple, and raised a respectable family on the basis of hard work, faith, and thrift. And the Italian enclave of New York was a perfect place for them to live the American Dream.

Mulberry Street in 1900, Colorized. This is about the time my grandparents arrived from Italy.
Little Italy in 1962

The neighborhood as I knew it was busy and vibrant, full of local bakeries, pizzerias, streetside stalls, cigar stores, candy stores, stationery stores, butcher shops, and anything and everything a thriving community transplanted from the “old country” would need or want. But even then, the slow downward slide toward gentrification had begun.

Anyone who has seen “The Godfather, Part II” is familiar with the street festival during which Vito Corleone assassinates Don Fanucci. This is a portrayal based on the Festa di San Gennaro (The Feast of St. Januarius) which was brought to New York by immigrants from Naples in 1926 as a continuation of the celebration of their patron Saint. Originally a one-day celebration, the Festa continues to this day as an 11-day extravaganza (except in 2020, when it was cancelled due to the Covid outbreak); activities include Italian street food, sausages, zeppole (fried dessert balls otherwise known as “Italian doughnuts”), games of chance (often dishonest¹), music, cannoli-eating contests, vendors, parades, and the grand procession honoring the patron saint – the tradition of attaching money to the statue continues, with the funds designated to be used for the poor. In the past it has been a major tourist attraction, and hopefully it will be once again when the pandemic madness has passed.

The Feast of San Gennaro

But known to fewer people is the fact that there was a second Festa which took place along Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village during the ’60s: The Feast of St. Anthony of Padua. St. Anthony’s was established in 1859 as the first parish in the United States formed specifically to serve the Italian immigrant community. (Wikipedia)

St. Anthony’s Church

I know of this because the celebration happened right under my window when I was living right on the corner of Prince and Sullivan, at 186 Prince Street.

186 Prince Street, seen in 2009

Saint Anthony’s feast was not as big and grandiose as the one for San Gennaro, but it was more intimate and more homey. The noise and the ruckus and the celebration would last far into the night, and the sounds and the smells of Italian food was tantalizing.

Feast of St. Anthony, 1960s

Even kids got into the act. It was not uncommon to see a number of boys sitting along the street inviting others to play the “shot glass” game, in which pennies were dropped into a slot at the top of a large jar of water, with the aim of getting them into a shot glass at the bottom. Winners collected 10¢; those who had the knack of holding the coin by its edge and giving it a spin straight down could usually clean out their competition in short order, while others simply watched their coins gently float down to land outside the sweet spot.

Shot Glass in the Bottle Game

Sadly the festival for St. Anthony has largely died out; efforts have been made to revive it, but due to the changing demographics of the Village and the reduction of Little Italy to a shadow of its former self, interest has waned and there has not been enough social momentum to bring it back to its former glory.

The St. Anthony Procession in 2015

From what I am told, Italian festivals continue to be a big deal in other cities such as Boston, but these were the ones that I knew, and I miss them

The Old Wolf has spoken.


¹ I say this from personal experience. One game involved a long track in front of the stand, in which a shiny metal car was pushed; it would bounce back and forth between springs at each end (kind of a flat variation of the “wheel of chance”) and a pointer on the car would land in a given zone when it stopped. The very small center zone was highlighted for a major prize; others were smaller prizes or nothing. I gave it a shot (probably 25¢ a play) and watched the car land dead center in the grand prize. That was before the ride operator gave it a shove with her hand, which I saw very clearly. I walked away with a set of colored glasses which I gave to my mother, but I should have won something much better – can’t remember what it would have been. I was only 12 at the time and complaining would have done no good.

Booty from Christmas Past

Cross-posted from Livejournal


Shut up, you deviants. I mean Jack Sparrow-type booty. Arr…

In 2010, a chest o’treasure arrived in me mailbox from a pretty wench in a far-off land. A whole bundle of silly, fun things: most useful, all appreciated.

The tie was the most interesting of all. To look at, it’s just a nice Christmas-themed cravat (since I only have one other, this will be a fine addition next Yule season.) But on closer examination, there are bits and snatches of words running through the candy canes.

I could tell the writing extended through the candy canes onto the blue background, but it was impossible to see in normal light, especially with the reflection from the shiny silk. So I scanned it, hoping to bring out a bit of detail.

With a little contrast and gamma manipulation, I was able to get the words to come out a bit more (this is just a small section, and my working image was much larger):

What jumped out at me was “The Christmas Joy”, “around the year”, “spot”, and “frozen”. Doing a Google search on these words came up with one – and only one – hit, a poorly-scanned copy of Down Durley Lane and Other Ballads by Virginia Woodward Cloud, published in 1898(!), and illustrated by Reginald Bathurst Birch which included this poem, “Old Christmas”:

It’s a long way round the year, my dears,
A long way round the year.
I found the frost and flame, my dears,
I found the smile and tear!

The wind blew high on the pine-topp’d hill.
And cut me keen on the moor:
The heart of the stream was frozen still,
As I tapped at the miller’s door.

I tossed them holly in hall and cot,
And bade them right good cheer,
But stayed me not in any spot,
For I’d traveled around the year

To bring the Christmas joy, my dears,
To your eyes so bonnie and true;
And a mistletoe bough for you, my dears,
A mistletoe bough for you!

What a delightful, hidden, and serendipitous message!

Miraculous it was that these words were even clear in the transcription, because it was a raw optical-conversion, and much of the text came out as garbage. What’s more, Virginia Woodward Cloud is a rather obscure poet, not unlike Grace Noll Crowell, (whose works I had hunted for over a period of 40 years, only having success last year thanks to another deep internet search). So the odds of finding one of Cloud’s poems on a Christmas tie are pretty slim.

A bit more digging found a beautiful online, zoomable copy of the book – “Old Christmas” is on page 99.

And all this because I gave the wench a stale crust of bread…

The Old Wolf has spoken

A Christmas Quiz

I didn’t know a number of these interesting tidbits. How well will you do?

(Answers at End, no peeking)

1. What British monarch ordered ginger cakes made to resemble friends and family members the precursors of today’s gingerbread men?

2. In what country was the turkey first domesticated?

3. What traditional Christmas beverage takes its name from the Saxon word meaning “wish of health”?

4. How big was the turkey Scrooge bought for the Cratchits?

5. Dr. Joel Robert Poinsett brought the first “poinsettia” plant to the U.S. from Mexico in 1828. What was he?

6. Vaccinium macrocarpon is the botanical name for what Christmas-associated plant?

7. What did NASA workers sneak on board Apollo 8 as stocking-stuffers for their Christmas moon mission?

8. What is the most popular Christmastime dessert in Japan?

9. What are polkagris?

10. Mistletoe was used in pre-Christian times as…

11. Name the 3 Wise Men.

12. Who wrote the Bing Crosby hit “White Christmas”?

13. In “The Grinch that Stole Christmas”, was was the Grinch’s heart full of?

14. How many lights were used this year (2015) to illuminate the Christmas tree at the Rockefeller Center in NYC?

15. In what year was Charles Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol” first published?

16. What did O.J. Simpson give Nicol Brown Simpson for Christmas in 1993?

17. What happened at the St. Nicholas church in Arnsdorf, Austria, in 1817 which prompted church organist Father Joseph Mohr and music teacher Franz Gruber to compose “Stille Nacht” (Silent Night)?

18. Why did the Massachussets Public Health Dept. issue a warning against kissing under the mistletoe in 1969?

19. What Christmas object did Edward Johnson invent in 1882?

20. In 1986, the Irish Rovers released a Christmas novelty song originally recorded by an American duo named Elmo and Patsy. Name that tune.

21. What country blocked the entry of Marie Osmond and The Pointer Sisters on Bob Hope’s 1990 holiday tour to entertain U.S. troops?

22. The first artificial (polyvinyl) Christmas trees made their appearance in which 20th-century decade?

23. Gene Autry’s association with the song “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” is well known, but the singing cowboy wrote and recorded another Christmas hit in 1949 which went on to be recorded by more than 300 other artists (including Elvis) and to sell more than 80 million copies. What was/is this famous song?

24. When/where did silver foil “icicles” first appeared?

25. Which of the following is St. Nicholas NOT associated with? A. children; B. thieves; C. scholars; D. virgins; E. musicians


  1. Queen Elizabeth 1
  2. Mexico
  3. Wassail
  4. Twice the size of Tiny Tim
  5. The first U.S. ambassador to Mexico
  6. The American cranberry
  7. Three bottles of brandy
  8. French style strawberry shortcake
  9. Swedish candy cane
  10. Being associated with fertility, it was supposed to be a cure for sterility
  11. Kaspar, Melchior, Balthazar
  12. Irving Berlin
  13. Dirty stockings
  14. 45,000 LED lights.
  15. 1843
  16. 6K diamond earrings
  17. The organ was broken; a mouse chewed the bellows (Silent Night was originally composed as an a cappella piece).
  18. To prevent a spread of mononucleosis.
  19. Christmas tree lights
  20. “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer”
  21. Saudi Arabia
  22. 1960s
  23. “Here Comes Santa Claus”
  24. In Germany, in the late 1870s.
  25. E

And to all a good night!

Innsbruck - Altstadt - Clock Tower at Christmas

Stadtturm, Innsbruck, Austria at Christmas

Christmas Videos – Alternative and Traditional

FNAR (for no apparent reason) I present you with some of my favorite songs regarding Christmastide.

The first, by Tom Lehrer, was sung in 1959. The inimitable Mr. Lehrer is now in his 80s, and I’d love to hear a song about what he thinks of today’s commercial Black Friday madness.

The next is Bob Rivers’ eternally -amusing “The Twelve Pains of Christmas”. Linguistic aside: I love the Jersey pronunciation of “terlet paper.”

My wife and I have always loved Tim Minchen, and his song “White Wine in the Sun,” while addressing the humanist slant on the holidays, has some powerful thoughts buried in there. It’s particularly poignant for me in terms of the focus on the importance of family.

Returning to the traditional, if you haven’t seen Pentatonix’ version of “Mary Did You Know,” I present it here for your enjoyment:

Lastly, a lovely version of “Christmas is a Feeling,” long one of my favorite Yuletide songs and sadly seldom recorded, with a message which I wish more people would embrace:

Wishing all people everywhere a joyous season of reflection, rededication, and renewal.


The Old Wolf has spoken.

Wizards in Winter: Taking it to the next level

In 2005, Carson Williams, a Mason, Ohio electician, decorated his home and synchronized it to the music “Wizards in Winter” by Trans-Siberian Orchestra. A higher-quality version of the original video that was circulated by email can be seen below.

Not to be outdone, a neighborhood in Yucaipa, Calif. decided to one-up the Joneses, as it were, and got everyone on an entire block to come up with a similar synchronization. They recorded the result with a drone; it’s breathtaking, to say the least.

Paul Ó Neill, the creator of TSO, was moved. He told Billboard “We were incredibly honored and flattered when we first saw a house in Mason, Ohio, sync their lights to ‘Wizards In Winter,’ but to see a whole community band together and do something like this is beyond words. We only hope they don’t send us the electric bill!”

Here’s the neighborhood video:

This is one of my favorite pieces of music, largely as a result of the original video; I was delighted to see this evolution.

Probably not good for epileptics, though.

The Old Wolf has spoken.,