An Italian-tinted Yuletide

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Christmas is a time for celebration, but how we celebrate has changed over the centuries. How do you celebrate Christmas? Do you embrace the more secular version embodied by Santa Claus with his big bag of presents, or the more religious one in which gifts are given in recognition of God’s gift to us of His Son Jesus Christ?

One tradition I embrace is the Christmas story told by Mario Avignone, the founder of this column. Fr. Pierini asked him decades ago to start writing Petals as a way of keeping Roseland alive in our hearts. In my 13 years as the author of this column I have tried to maintain the tradition of a sense of belonging to the larger community of those who grew up in Roseland, Pullman, and Kensington. Enjoy! Buon Natale e Felice Anno Nuovo. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Years ago, when Fr. Joseph Chiminello was pastor of St. Anthony, he had a beautiful manger scene set up in front of the old church altar. It cost a lot of money to import from Italy, and it was his pride and joy.

On Christmas morning, Fr. Joe went into the church between masses to pray in front of the imported crib. He was shocked to see the Baby Jesus had disappeared! He looked everywhere in the church, but couldn’t find the beautiful little statue.

He phoned the Kensington Police Station, then located at 115th Street and Indiana Avenue, and talked to Commander Tom O’Brien and reported the Baby Jesus was missing and someone had stolen it.

Commander O’Brien and his best detectives rushed to the church. Judge Alexander Napoli, who lived in the neighborhood, heard about the Baby Jesus being missing from the Nativity crib and rushed to help find it.

Someone phoned Alderman Dominic Lupo and reported that the Baby Jesus had been stolen from St. Anthony Church. He too, joined in the search but to no avail.

Fr. Chiminello, Commander O’Brien, Judge Napoli and Alderman Lupo stood at the front of the church in front of the Nativity discussing who might have stolen the beautiful statue and why. They had no clue and were at a loss as to why anyone would commit such a sacrilege.

Just then there was a sound in the back of the church of a door opening. As they watched in disbelief, a 6-year-old boy walked into the church and up the main aisle pulling a little red wagon with a blanket in it. As the wagon drew close to the group of men at the front of the Nativity, the boy stopped and opened the blanket to reveal the beautiful imported statue of the Baby Jesus.

The men were dumbstruck. Finally, Fr. Joe timidly asked: “Why did you steal the statue?”

The boy looked at the men with a smile on his face as his eyes lit up in innocent wonder and he said: “I didn’t steal Baby Jesus. I prayed to Jesus last night for a red wagon for my Christmas present. When I woke up this morning — it was there — my little red wagon was under the tree. I was so happy, I wanted to give Baby Jesus the first ride in my red wagon to say thank you for answering my prayers.”

The traditions in our hearts

When we were growing up in Roseland, our holiday season was full of special events that took place each year. Depending on which organizations or churches your parents were members of, there were Christmas parties and dinners. Sometimes the events were planned and carried out as children’s events and those events always carried special memories.

I recall stories told by members of the Roseland Operetta Club (ROC) and its children’s Christmas party. The family’s brought all their kids to meet Santa and to receive a gift specifically for them — as though Santa knew exactly what they wanted. The woman who related the story said that, as a child, she had always been afraid of Santa at these ROC events.

In talking with her sisters about the good times their family had enjoyed at the ROC, one woman mentioned that she had always been afraid of Santa. Her sisters immediately began laughing out loud like they’d just heard the funniest joke. Bewildered by their sudden bout of laughter she asked what was so funny. That was when her sisters explained that, all those years ago when they were little girls attending the ROC Christmas party, her being afraid of Santa gave everyone in their family a secret moment of humor.

That little girl was too frightened of Santa Claus to realize that her dad wasn’t there to comfort her because the ROC Santa actually was her dad! Now, that they were all adults and hadn’t thought about the ROC Christmas parties in years, her older sisters thought it was hilarious tha,t this late in life, she had never been told their father was that Santa.

Most Roselandites remember the Christmas Parade sponsored by the Roseland Merchants Association. The Gately’s People’s Store Santa would be on a float with his elves throwing candy to the kids lining the curb. There were special seasonal sales in all the stores and I recall there was even a special Christmas store that had opened.

My brother Augie and I had our tip money from delivering the South End Reporter to spend, and that Christmas store was a lot of fun. I also remember American Sales starting out near Stu De Jong Hobby Store. American Sales opened up for Christmas and did so well, it became a permanent Roseland merchant with full-time store on Michigan Avenue.

Parties sponsored by organizations like the Eiche Turners and various church groups and athletic club provided us with so many lasting memeories. The American Legion Post #49, which was where the Historic Pullman Visitor’s Center is today, always had a big Christmas party for the members’ children. These annual events gave us many memories to look back on with a special fondness.

My book “Petals from Roseland: Fond Memories of Chicago’s Roseland, Pullman and Kensington Neighborhoods” has sold more than 600 copies since it became available a year ago. I’m thankful for the opportunity to have provided so many fond memories of the Roseland we all grew up in. I have some copies of the book available if anyone is interested in sharing or revisiting their life in Roseland. Contact me at petalsfromroseland@gmail.com or 11403 S. St. Lawrence Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60628; 773-701-6756.

About C.J. Martello

CJ Martello has returned to his roots as the author of “Petals from Roseland.” After five years of writing his column as a resident of Chicago's North Side, CJ put his money where his heart is and moved to Pullman, near the Roseland area in which he grew up. Having joined the Spaghetti-Os, Veneti nel Mondo and St. Anthony of Padua Parish and being one of the founders of the Roseland Roundtable Facebook page, CJ has become reacquainted with countless friends and acquaintances from his youth. CJ is looking forward to retirement and completing the books he has put on hold, including one that will encompass as much of Roseland's rich, beloved history as possible.

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