A New Year's Eve Tradition from 1919 - Party with the Past

Payne Avenue, 1952 ( Pioneer Press )

Payne Avenue, 1952 (Pioneer Press)

Growing up, our grandfather, Jim Lonetti, was a part of his family’s New Year’s Eve tradition that started in Mesoraca, Italy and was carried to the 600 block of Fauquier and Lower Payne Avenue (the East side of St. Paul). They called it “Little Italy”. On the eve of the New Year when the clock struck midnight, the Lonetti’s and nine Italian families, their homes filled with the scents of their heritage, opened up their doors to each other. They would spend the early hours of the morning celebrating good health and enjoying each family’s unique recipes.

Time passed, people moved away, the world changed—but the tradition remained strong. When Grandpa Lonetti’s father Frank died in 1955, Grandpa made a pledge to him that he would always carry on the tradition as long as there was a Lonetti on Fauquier (Bush) Avenue. Others pledged the same. No matter the hardships faced by the families, there was always a chance to come together and share tales of the old days. This story is a testament to the values of the Lonetti family, who to this day, prove themselves as generous hosts.

Sometimes we may hesitate to so willingly open our homes to our neighbors and share our lives, but if the traditions of our families should teach us anything, it’s that there’s little difference between blood family and those you treat as such.

We are so fortunate that this family tradition was captured in The Oliver Town Column of the St. Paul Dispatch on January 4, 1966. Enjoy the full article below and Felice Anno Nuovo!

Party With the Past - The Oliver Towne Column

WHAT TOOK PLACE on that one block of old Fauquier Street on New Year’s eve was pretty much Jim Lonetti’s affair. But it actually began long ago in the sunny little town of Mezzaraca in the province of Catonzaro in southern Italy.

Jimmy carried on the tradition as he pledged to do and as his son, Gary, is pledged to do as long as anybody still lives on that almost forgotten block of what was once Fauquier street and is now Bush avenue, in the city’s lower Payne avenue neighborhood.

Little Italy they called it once.

Once there were nine Italian families living on the street. And two German families. “Boy, that sauerkraut and spaghetti sauce really got mixed,” says Jimmy.

The Lonetti’s lived there. Papa Lonetti-Frank-came from Mezzaraca and so did some of the others. From the “toe of the boot.” “Maybe that is why I became a shoe repair man.” laughs Jimmy, whose shop is at 959 E. Seventh street. ‘But I am digressing a little.'‘

EVER SINCE 1919, on New Year’s Eve, the Italian families living on old Fauquier street celebrated in the manner of their forefathers’ tradition. And a delightful ritual it was.

Along about midnight, when the whistles of the locomotives in the Omaha yards and the roundhouse horn blew, the families would begin going from house to house - mama papa and all the children - those who could stay awake. It was a real game of musical chairs.

And at each house they would find their neighbors- waiting. The tables would be piled high with Italian chicken and potato patties, wine balls, hot chestnuts, lupine and baccala (Italian lutefisk). There would be three or four kinds of Dago red and Chianti wines.

“This would go on” says Jimmy, “until every family had visited every other family and, depending upon how long the wine and food held out, sometimes it was pretty close to the dawn on New Year’s morning before it was all quiet again on the block.”

Well, as I said, when he was growing up, this is how it went along Fauquier on New Year’s eve. And as the years passed, there was always somebody to carry on the tradition. Even though a lot of them grew up and scattered across the city, a few of the old families stayed. And the others came back on New Years’ Eve.

When, in 1955, Jimmy’s father, Frank, died, and one by one the old neighbors left Fauquier, it might have ended the tradition. “But I promised my father that I would carry it on as long as there was a single family on Fauquier- or rather Bush avenue,” says Jimmy. And his sister, Mrs. Gen Erickson, took the same pledge.

AND NOW we come to this last New Year’s Eve. At midnight, all the Lonettis - Jimmy, his wife and six sons and the relatives gathered at their home for merry making, “hugging and smooching,” as Jimmy says. Then he and his sister and his son, Gary, went to Fauquier street, in the 600 block.

There are only three Italian families left there now- the Joe Londinos, the Phil Manarinos and Harry Delpercio and his wife. It was to each of these homes that the Lonetti’s went and for a few hours things were like they have always been- the food, the singing, the rekindling of old memories when hundreds of Italians clustered in that neighborhood and made their own wine in autumn and grew grapefruit sized tomatoes in the backyard gardens and the men played bocce ball on Sunday afternoons along Payne Avenue.

They were good days and times of struggling, too, and nobody would want to bring them back except in the pleasant memory on New Year’s along old Fauquier Street.

As long as there is a family left and a Lonetti, it will always be that way. At midnight every year.”

Katie Gunderman