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Christmas through Italian-tinted lenses

Christmas is a time for celebration, but how 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 10-plus 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.”

Italy Version 2019

Italy is a beautiful place to visit and I have over 3,500 photos that prove it! Earlier this year at the end of September, I was able to be in Italy to celebrate my son Jim’s birthday with him and his wife Heather. They have been in living in Naples for almost two years and have one more year of naval duty to serve there.

My trip was interesting from the start with my original seatmate “Paula from Brazil” being asked to leave the United flight for being over-served. I followed that up by arriving by bus from Rome to Naples and being met by Heather just to get hit slightly by a van. No injuries were suffered by me in either instance!

Jim and Heather have a beautiful rooftop view from their condo of Mount Vesuvius. They showed me the Naples sights they’ve enjoyed throughout their time in Italy. Every evening we were home, they made me an antipasto plate and poured me a glass of wine for me to enjoy with the rooftop view as they prepared supper.

Jim and Heather have adapted nicely to life in Naples, especially the crazy drivers and scooters everywhere—they’ve joined them! The white lines that are meaningful in cities around the world are mere suggestions in Naples. Seeing a family of four on a scooter, people of all ages, persevering through all types of weather, and darting in and out of stopped traffic is all part of the fantastic scenario that is Naples. With narrow streets and most cars being of a compact or sub-compact nature, life always got interesting when a full-sized SUV would be negotiating traffic. The code of the road includes: if there’s an accident be the first one out of the vehicle and yelling—with usually resolves itself with everyone assessing damage. If it’s minor everyone just leaves and goes on with their business.

Jim and I left Naples and headed to Modena which is one of their favorite cities. He scheduled an Air B&B right in downtown Modena which also had a rooftop view. He’s a great navigator and we ate and drank well wherever we went due to his mastery of technology.

We toured Antico Classico Winery with Chiara, the daughter in the family. Since it was Jim’s birthday Mama went and got one of her special cakes to celebrate his day. Their wine was fantastic and the tasting and tour excellent.

Our next stop was the most enduring museum visit I have had the pleasure of taking part in: Casa Museo Luciano Pavarotti. The simpatico feeling of walking where he walked and seeing the possessions he used in his personal life and the well-thought out items referencing his careers while his music streamed in the background evoked a very emotional time.

Jim and I parted company in Modena and I rode the train to Venice where my rental was fortunately upgraded to an SUV for my solo journey to Tresche Conca, Rotzo, Mezzaselva, Roana, and Asiago where I met my cousin from Trieste Claudio and his wife Mirca.

We toured the local cemeteries for ancestral connections and enjoyed the local flavor of food, wine and the sights. As we were leaving the Hotel Rutzer where we stayed in Asiago, Claudio mentioned I was returning to Chicago to Gina the owner who lit up at the mention. Her daughter Michaela was nearby and Gina called to her to join us. It turned out that Michaela was the Asiago representative to come to the United States when Lockport, Illinois became the sister city to Asiago.

From Asiago we drove down the mountain through 21 hairpin turns—thank goodness it was in daylight! In Bassano Del Grappa we went to see Claudio’s 89 year-old Uncle Farruchio who was working on one of his seven 1950’s Moto-Guzzi motorcycles. Uncle Farruchio was widowed over a year ago when his wife of 60 years, Teresina passed away. He spends his time gardening and working on his motorcycles. He was so happy to see us that he took us to the bar/deli he used to own and treated us to a shot of the finest Nardini “grappa.”

We visited Antonio and Mariella friends of his, from when he spent time growing up in Bassano. Antonio is an Alpini—Italian Alps Soldier—for which I have an affection. Antonio generously gave me a commemorative baseball hat that reads: “Gli Alpini Sono Noi” – “We are the Alpini.”

Claudio and Mirca and I parted company as they began their three hour long drive to Trieste and I headed to my hotel for the night in Bassano del Grappa, In Bassano I managed to lose my direction and also in Rome the next day. It was fortunate for me that my son Jim had me walking like a trooper during the week I was with him. The fifteen errant miles I spent traipsing around Bassano and Rome didn’t bother me at all besides which I was already tired and walking like a zombie.

My vacation ended with a peaceful ten hour United flight from Rome to Chicago leaving on Friday afternoon from Italy and which put me at O’Hare during Friday night rush hour. Also, it was a very cold day which didn’t mesh well with my jet-lagged self. Despite anything less than positive that happened on this trip: It was a once in a lifetime experience and I get excited each time I think of having been with my son James, my daughter-in-law Heather and my cousin Claudio and his wife Mirca. I had so many excellent experiences and took over 3,500 photos that I’ll have to consider putting them into book form.

Speaking of books, my book “Petals from Roseland: Fond Memories of Chicago’s Roseland, Pullman, and Kensington Neighborhoods” is now available for purchase. For more information on the book contact me at petalsfromroseland@gmail.com.

For information, contact me at 11403 S. St. Lawrence Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60628; 773-701-6756; or cjfranoi@yahoo.com.

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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