Paraders gather in Fells Point to continue caroling tradition

December 24, 2009|By Joe Burris | joseph.burris@baltsun.com

They gathered Wednesday night in Fells Point with accordions, drums, brass instruments and lively caroling voices, marching as many have for nearly four decades in this once-vibrant Polish community and making joyful noises.

They call the event East Baltimore Christmas, a night of caroling and celebrating the city's rich Polish heritage. Since its inception in 1971, it has grown into a Polish homecoming and a local holiday staple. Wednesday night's event drew hundreds who sang everything from traditional Polish songs to "Jingle Bells."

Each year on the night before Christmas Eve, those who once lived in the neighborhood as well as their descendants come to the annual event from as far away as Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.

East Baltimore Christmas is not advertised and spreads mainly by word of mouth. It was once known for its musicians and carolers who rode in a-rab produce wagons, but now most participants are on foot.

"It has turned into a Maryland tradition," said Frank Bittner of Hurlock, who founded the event in 1971, a couple of years after he bought airtime on a local radio station to host a weekly polka show. While growing up in Curtis Bay, he said that his grandfather used to speak of caroling with friends in the villages of eastern Poland on the day before Christmas Eve.

Bittner decided to re-create the tradition in Baltimore's Polish communities, announcing the caroling event on his weekly radio show.

"You could be crazy here back then," said Bittner, looking along the Fells Point streets. "It wasn't as congested. We had seven Polish organizations that had club bars. We had five Polish churches in the area. The first year drew about 30 people with one accordionist. The second year, a lot of people from the Polish community showed up in Polish costumes. It has grown every year."

The event began at the Polish Home Club along South Broadway led by an antique fire engine that carried Santa Claus and a group of musicians. They began the procession singing " Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" as onlookers photographed the marchers.

"I've been playing in this event so long, I don't remember when I started," said accordionist Lenny Adanski of Baltimore. "It gets you into the holiday spirit. It's one of my favorite events."

Among the stops last night was the now-vacant St. Stanislaus Kostka Roman Catholic Church on South Ann Street. Built in the 1880s to serve the area's Polish community, the church was closed by the Archdiocese of Baltimore in 2000. The procession was set to conclude back at the Polish Home Club, where musicians were to continue their serenading.

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