St. Anthony’s Festival in Boston’s North End
The funny thing about traditions is that sometimes a community starts their own. One of the things I miss about Boston in the late summer are the neighborhood street festivals including the Portuguese and Italian celebrations in Cambridge and Boston. While these events have the flavor of old Europe, they are decidedly American celebrations. The biggest of all of these, the St. Anthony’s Fest in the North End, is coming up (Aug 23-25, 2013) and a fun chance to celebrate Italian-American culture. (My photos below are from last year.)
Two hundred years ago, the North End of Boston was a run-down area. It attracted poor immigrants and quickly became the center for waves of the Irish, then Eastern European Jewish and finally Italian immigrants who settled at the turn of the century. Grocery stores, churches, schools and restaurants popped up as residents sought to recreate their homeland. Celebrations, traditions and familial practices came along with the immigrants. Over time, the neighborhood became first and second generation Italian-Americans and slowly became something entirely its own. Without the original Italian experience, the children and grandchildren kept elements of their immigrant family’s heritage but evolved their practices to their own taste and to the conveniences of American life.
It’s with this sense of neighborhood heritage and pride (perhaps more so than Italian national pride) that the Italian St. Anthony Festival continues each year. The game and souvenir booths have a playfulness usually seen along a summer boardwalk (like perhaps the Jersey shore – another haven of Italian-American culture). The food is 100% Italian-American. For example, stuffed, fried rice balls are a specialty in Sicily. Usually the size of a typical apple, they are eaten from a paper wrapper and are dry. This recipe came over to the North End a hundred years ago and has now morphed into a softball size orb swimming in a boat of marinara sauce. Is this authentic Sicily? No – but it is authentic North End, Boston.
I’m also fascinated by the procession of St. Anthony through the North End to receive donations from the faithful. Religious processions are very common in Europe but not at all known in America thanks to our Puritan ancestors. While the procession in the North End is quite impressive to watch, it’s not quite what I’ve seen in Italy. I can’t help but think that people participate because they grew up doing this. Every year the organizers must think back to what they remember and decide if any changes will be too much deviation from the past. Event marshals crowd about with their official ribbons of distinction, very much attuned to the social aspect of the festival, but also concerned with the continuity of the tradition. Children and grandma’s cling excitedly to ribbons of cash for the Saint statue because it’s what they do every year. The propagation of this hybrid Italian-American culture is what makes the festival so fun and touching.
Sadly, I think this unique North End culture is fading. More and more legacy residents and family members are moving to the suburbs leaving fewer “true North Enders” in the neighborhood – an inevitability that also faced the previous waves of North End immigrants. Modern high-rise apartments and more affluent residents are popping up taking advantage of the area’s close proximity to downtown Boston. Gawkers following the main tourist Freedom Trail to the historic 18th century sights snap up cheesy tee-shirts and nick-knacks at new shops. More importantly for me, the restaurant quality has definitely gone down. They are now catering to visitors looking to experience “The North End” and as such are serving poor quality, albeit huge, meatballs and pasta swimming in sauce. After 4 years in Boston, I stopped venturing to the neighborhood for dinner because it was so generic and uninteresting.
I encourage you to visit the St. Anthony’s Festival if you are in Boston at the end of August. Enjoy the silly plastic toys, the massive bowls of gnocchi and the gelato. Everyone seems to come back to the neighbor for this festival and so you see old family and friends reunited for the weekend. I always feel like I get a truer sense of the unique Italian-American culture of the North End during this festival. Just bear in mind that this too is only a temporary apparition of the old neighborhood and that this unique culture may not always be around. But with any luck, the new neighbors will joyfully participate too or create some new North End traditions of their own.