Christmas through the ages

For 50 years, a family has used its holiday cards to foster ties between continents and generations


There's chaos at the altar of St. Leo's. Twenty-eight Lazzatis, former Lazzatis, Lazzatis-in-law and Lazzatis-to-be mill about in their itchy Christmas best on a warm Sunday morning between Masses. Arms flail ("We're all hand-talkers," one sister explains), and conversations collide: Weren't you wearing that to the wedding? Who's got the baby? Someone switches on a mechanical dancing Santa Claus; it boogies jerkily as someone else grumbles about sacrilege.

But now the tripod and the studio lights are up, and the photographer, at the top of her step ladder, looks concerned.

"Hey everybody," she says.

Then, somehow, it just happens. A few barked commands are followed by a brief stampede (during which the lone newcomer, the youngest Lazzati brother's fiancee, appears profoundly startled), and suddenly people are in place, smiling, and as still as the gold-trimmed statues of saints behind them. As if on cue, the choir practicing hymns in the loft above breaks into a chorus of We Wish You a Merry Christmas, even though it's mid-October.

This is the kind of coordination the family expects after 50 years of shooting its Christmas card pictures, which are famous in Little Italy and beyond. After all, most of the Lazzatis have been posing since before they can remember, since they were toddlers, when, as 43-year-old Phil Lazzati of Towson says, "all it took was one look from Dad, and you knew you had to shape up."

But Dad - 88-year-old Jimmy Lazzati of Towson - isn't shooting any dirty looks today. He's nestled in a velvet-backed throne instead of his wheelchair, holding his wife's hand, and flanked by their 11 children and their children's children. This is the best day he has had in a long time, the kids say later; the Christmas picture was always his moment. And after the last flicker-flicker-flash of the camera fades, his big smile stays put.

Start of a custom

Little Italy in the early 20th century was a place where people lived through pictures. Photographs arrived, tucked inside envelopes from across the Atlantic, with letters that read like introductions: This is your cousin Vittorio, or This is Luigi Ricci, the man I married. A relationship began, and although family members in the old and new worlds might never meet, they would always trade snapshots.

Some of the portraits were forbidding - strangers frowning in black shawls and dark suits - but they helped young Jimmy Lazzati imagine his relatives in Varzi, Italy, the village in the foothills of the Alps that his father left in 1898.

"Never forget us," the family told his father as he packed for America. "Never forget where you came from."

And that's what he taught Jimmy Lazzati, who was born in 1917 in a Little Italy apartment that is now part of Germano's restaurant. Never forget.

He didn't, not even during his wandering years, when family seemed like the last thing on his mind. A debonair bachelor who graduated from Loyola College, Lazzati dabbled in boxing, finished law school and joined the Army. He also considered the priesthood, and so, for a time, it seemed like this prolific father would have no children.

Then, at 34, he met Rosemary LeCompte, then 22, a woman of French, Irish and German descent. He nicknamed her "Duncie" and proposed on Christmas Eve in 1950, wrapping the ring in a tiny box, then inside a slightly bigger box, and so on.

"I just kept opening," his wife recalls. "With each one I thought it was the last, but then there was another little one."

So it was with children. The first, Jimmy Jr., arrived 11 months after their wedding in May 1951; the next, a girl, 11 months after that.

By the fall of 1955, the Lazzatis had four children, and Jimmy Lazzati - who had settled on selling pipes and manhole covers for a living - decided that he finally had something to write Varzi about. Christmas was the perfect time to do so: After all, it was a holiday about the making of a family, though a much smaller one.

He and Rosemary hired a photographer and decked out their brood in footed pajamas, bribing one tiny daughter, Mary, with a pretzel, which she's gripping in the picture. Everyone lined up in front of the fireplace.

When 50 copies arrived in Italy, parents and offspring were neatly labeled, their names written over their chests in careful cursive, so the family could know them.

Years of portraits

The early cards were creative and often religious-themed, with Nativity scenes printed on the flip side or, better yet, posed by family members on the front. There was the year that baby Joan stood in for the infant Jesus, her bassinet stuffed with straw; there was the year that statues of the Holy Family were mounted on overturned Pepsi crates. And - although most of the pictures were taken in the living room of the Lazzatis' little brick house on Loch Raven Boulevard - sometimes the mischievous-looking Lazzatis invaded various Catholic altars, their hands folded into little teepees of prayer.

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