Remembering La Festa

This time of year I can’t help thinking about a pleasant part of my childhood in Utica, New York. In the 1930’s and early 40‘s (yes it was that long ago) summertime ushered in a flurry of Italian street festivals in East Utica. A litany of saints were honored with their own festival usually hosted by a quasi religious society representing some region of Italy. The feasts of Sante Giuseppe, Sante Rocco, L’Assunta, Sante Antonio, Santa Rosalia, Santi Cosmo and Danmiano were the most popular.

Several street blocks were cordoned off with Christmas-like lights ( usually red, white and green) spanning from one side to the other. Food vending booths and booths sporting various games of chance appeared out of nowhere at every corner. A place of honor was reserved for a statue of the saint adorned with dollar bills. Separated by a respectable distance were two bandstands for La Banda Rossa and La Banda Bianco.

The faithful were beckoned to the feast by a procession thru the streets of East Utica featuring a band ,members of the society hosting the feast and a statue of the saint . We were particularly fortunate in that our landlady was the president of La Societa di Sante Antonio since this called for the band to come to our home where it played while the president exited her home in all her finery and joined the procession. As I recall, as the procession proceeded it was customary to offer a dollar bill to be pinned to the statue. I don’t think the money went to any charity unless you could call the festival organizers a charity

Thinking back it seems that the festival or feast was more of a social event than a religious event. People got to spend a festive time with their paisani, compare and famiglia. The feast was all about food and music. Italian sausage simmering on a grill, tomato pie, gelato, lupini, pizza fritta and my favorite, - zippoli . The music - a battle of the bands with La Banda Russa dueling La Banda Bianco. Looking back, it amazes me that a small group of amateur musicians under the direction of Maestro Lalli would dare tackle the Triumphant March from Aida.

From a family point of view the most memorable part of attending “ the feast” was that occasionally our father would take us to a nearby neighborhood bar where in the backroom we indulged in some refreshments - beer and tomato pie for pop and mom, ginger ale and tomato pie for myself and my sister. Afterwards it was off to of all places the city dump for the highlight of the festival - fireworks. Considering the economically depressed times the fireworks display was extravagant. Aerial bombs , rockets, “ Niagara Falls”, a fiery outline of the particular saint, a glowing American and Italian Flag. You knew that the fireworks were over when a rocket went up and out popped two parachutes lowering an Italian and an American flag. As the Italian flag came down La Band Russa played an Italian fanfare ( for obvious reasons this practice was stopped as World War II clouds gathered).

The feast was officially over with an eleven o’clock Sunday mass. It was a “three priest high mass” complete with incense and ornate vestments. In attendance were the societa members with their sashes and haughty looks. It was mandatory that pastor give an emotional sermon in Italian praising the saint being honored. It was also mandatory that the collection baskets overflowed. As the priest raised the chalice during the Consecration, the serenity of the mass was interrupted by fireworks going off outside the church and La Banda Russa going into action with you guessed it, an Italian fanfare. With the completion of the mass and one final procession, La Festa was over but in Utica it would only be a matter of a few weeks before another festa took place.

The most recent festa that I have attended is the Feast of The Assumption (L’Assunta) celebrated in the Little Italy area of Cleveland, Ohio. No way did it measure up to the Utica feasts. As soon as I saw pieroggi and Elephant Ears being vended alongside fried dough and gnocchi I knew that times have changed and the essence of an Italian street festival had been compromised. The biggest disappointment - no Banda Russa!

( I have been told that delving into nostalgia is a sure sign of old age. That’s true but being old and able to remember is better than being old and not being able to remember.)


Sincerely Sophia said...

Three cheers for nostaglia!! How well I remember those days. I couldn't help but remember that Prof.Lalli gave me piano lessons until I refused to continue because my talent and his expectations were not compatible. I also remember our father letting me sip his beer! Thanks for the memories. Life was good.

Member of St. Anthony's Parish said...