Community Makes The Season

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A detail from the presepio at St. Brigid Roman Catholic Church in Westbury. Representations of Italian peasants typically populate the traditional nativities. (Photo by Michael Lettera)

Westbury, Carle Place celebrate the holidays

Both the Village of Westbury and the hamlet of Carle Place “officially” inaugurated the holiday season with tree lightings on the first Saturday in December.

These annual celebrations bring people together for festive occasions featuring music and singing, and of course, revive age-old rituals in which light drives out the darkness of winter.

They also gave children—and the young at heart—a chance to experience the unique joy in encountering a fat man in a white beard and red garb dispensing goodies.

Even before the lightings, community groups had begun the charitable custom of food and toy drives and doing good works.

Here’s an overview of the season as experienced in our coverage area.

From Westbury To Bethlehem

A village is one of the presepio backdrops. (Photo by Michael Lettera)

A tradition that reportedly harks back to St. Francis of Assisi in the 13th century is alive in Westbury. St. Brigid Roman Catholic Church, the oldest in Nassau County, is presenting, for the 28th year, its presepio, Italian for crèche or nativity scene. It is situated in the north transept of the church, and all are welcome to visit and see this impressive example of a collaborative effort.

St. Francis’ conception quickly spread throughout Christendom, becoming more complex, and reached its artistic apogee in the Naples area in the 16th to 18th centuries.

Scenes from everyday life dot the presepio. (Photo by Michael Lettera)

John Bush is in charge of the volunteer corps that puts together the 3,000-plus pieces, and the “superstructure” of the presepio. They begin every year on Election Day, and the final pieces are added the day after Thanksgiving.

He said that in 1991, the then-pastor of St. Brigid’s, Father Frank Gaeta, was inspired by the famous Neapolitan presepio in the Metropolitan Museum of Art to create one in his parish.

“Father Frank knew someone in Italy, Master Don De Francesco of Lecce, who was contacted to make all the figures,” Bush stated. “There were 25 original volunteers who built the presepio from the ground up that year, with only one original member still somewhat active, Al Peck. The volunteers involved added on scenes over the years which enhanced the entire presentation.”

Exquisitely carved figures are a highlight of the presepio. The elaborate nativity scene consists of more than 3,000 pieces assembled by volunteers. Visible are the figures of the Holy Family, who are moved closer to the manger with each passing day. (Photo by Michael Lettera)

De Francesco’s figures were paid for by the O’Sullivan family of Westbury in memory of their three children.

A press release by St. Brigid’s stated, “This year, Carole O’Sullivan also left us. In memory of the family’s contribution, we would like to dedicate the 28th presentation of the presepio to the O’Sullivan family.”

This year’s presepio is dedicated to the late Carole O’Sullivan, whose family financed the carving of the figures.

Bush related that he began volunteering 17 years ago, after moving to Westbury, and said that Peck was his mentor, showing him “all the ropes on how it all went together. My expertise was the electrical part of the presepio—since I worked for National Grid—besides a lot of the detail and construction.”

St. Brigid’s Church is represented, with St. Nick, in front of the doors, calling the faitful to Christmas Mass. (Photo by Michael Lettera)

He added, “Four years ago, Al retired and moved upstate, but still makes the time to travel down on Election Day to help. I took over as coordinator and administrator [after Peck retired]. We have now 10 very talented core volunteers that put their time and talent in repairing, remodeling and setting up the presepio for the Christmas season for all to reflect and enjoy.”

Another volunteer, Michael Lettera, observed, “The interesting thing about the presepio is that it is all handmade, and is like a jigsaw puzzle. I helped assemble it a few years back and was amazed at how complex it was to assemble, with many irregularly-shaped pieces that have been molded and adapted, added over the years. It’s an art and labor of love for those involved.”

The manger and Angel Tree are the ultimate destination for those visiting the presepio. (Photo by Michael Lettera.

He went on, “Some pieces are large and heavy, requiring several people to put them in place. But when it’s all in place, it is seamless and beautiful to take in.”

Visitors to the presepio are led along a passage that begins with a reproduction of St. Brigid’s Church (including its stained glass windows) and ends with the manger and angel tree. Along the way are scenes from a 17th-century Neapolitan village with a variety of townspeople. Other scenes include fields and the ruins of a Roman temple, symbolizing, per the press release, “the triumph of Christianity over paganism.”

Repeat visitors will see the figures of Joseph leading Mary on a donkey moving closer to the manger until they arrive on Christmas Eve. The Holy Family will be joined at the crèche by the three magi on Jan. 5, the Feast of the Epiphany. Church hours are Monday through Friday from 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday from 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sunday from 6:30 a.m. to 7 pm. The presepio will be on display until 3 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 17.

“The diorama is a labor of love that I feel enriches the lives of those who see it and my fellow talented friends who build it,” Bush reflected. “People from all walks of life and far away come to see it and walk away with a good feeling. My favorite section or part is the whole set up from the St. Brigid’s Church to the angel tree. Every part has its own meaning and is special to me. Again, one person cannot do it alone, so I have to thank all our team members, all the confirmation students and volunteers who come to help setting it up to make it come alive.”

Santa Comes To Carle Place

The Carle PLace Civic Association sponsored a “12 Days of Christmas” in the hamlet, and numerous businesses allowed artists to paint seasonally-themed illustrations on their shop windows. This is Canine Cleaners, painted by Kristin and Marissa Nosovitch.
(Contributed Photo)

Before the tree lighting, Carle Place residents gathered at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church to sing carols and enjoy refreshments and fellowship.

They then gathered at the community tree at the corner of Westbury Avenue and Cherry Lane, which exemplified a true collaborative effort.

Organizers, participants and sponsors included the American Legion Post 1718, Carle Place Civic Association, school district, local businesses, scout troops and, of course, the fire department.

Emcee Kevin Ketterhagen, vice president of the civic association, also thanked the Village of Westbury for providing the barricades (via village trustee Vincent Abbatiello) and the Nassau County Police Department Third Precinct, for traffic control.

These children waited patiently for the Carle Place tree lighting ceremony to begin. (Photo by Frank Rizzo)

After a benediction by Deacon Patrick Dunphy of Our Lady of Hope, high school choir students blended their voices for some Christmas favorites like “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.”

Christine Imrie, the civic association co-president, encouraged the assembled to check out the decorated windows at numerous businesses throughout the hamlet, and thanked the owners for making their glass expanses available for the artists.

Santa and Mrs. Claus made a spectacular entrance, thanks to the Carle Place Fire Department. (Photo by Frank Rizzo)

John Heslin of the civic association reminded everyone that the day was the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, giving a short history lesson, and ended with praise for the law enforcement and first responders who kept the community safe.

Ketterhagen then started the countdown, joined by the unmistakable high pitched voices of the young ones, and the members of the American Legion hit the switch to bring the tree to lighted glory.

Soon, the firetrucks, lights flashing and sirens blaring, signaled the arrival of Santa.

The Carle Place American Legion Post 1718 lit the tree at the ceremony. From left, Helmut Walter, Ted Rykowski, Max Waage, Ken Blum, Bob Turton, Commander Al Piscitelli, John Lally, Marvin Levine and John Heslin. (Photo by Frank Rizzo)

And afterwards, residents gathered at nearby Cardinali Bakery for free treats, the cherry on top of a night of sweet feelings.

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Frank Rizzo is a journalist at Anton Media Group. With decades of experience in the industry, he is exceptionally equipped to cover local politics, business and other topics that matter to readers.

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