Rite Before Christmas

Assimilation challenges tradition in South Philadelphia’s Italian-American population.

By Tara Murtha
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Dec. 29, 2008

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Two weeks before Christmas, in the heart of the historically Italian-American section of South Philadelphia, traditional signs of the Christmas season emerge.

Bright spangles of lights zigzag across rowhomes and twine down blocks. Streets are temporarily transformed into glittering red, green and gold hallways.

Some older Italians speculate that the custom began when red and green lights colored for the Italian flag—not for Christmas—were strung in honor of patron saints.

In Italy, candles and lights traditionally illuminate nativity scenes and houses in the evenings. The decorative lights have gone next-level in Turin, a northern Italian city at the foothills of the Alps, where they’ve hosted a $1.7 million city-funded outdoor museum of lights called Luci d’Artista for the last decade. Luci d’Artista invites world-class artists to paint 20 kilometers of city streets with glowing geometric birds, celestial orbs and neon signs.

Closer to home, South Philly gives Turin a run for its money. In a cul-de-sac off Oregon Avenue (pictured at left), not only are the houses studded with thousands of lights, but Frank Sinatra croons Christmas classics out of a PA system.

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