By Tom Vartabedian
The Haverhill Gazette
---- — For 65 years, Joe and Gertrude Cardarelli were the Mr. and Mrs. Claus of Haverhill.
Each season, you would find them outside their 136 North Broadway home, decorating the premises like a veritable Christmas wonderland.
A lifelike manger scene would be joined by the Coming of the Magi, the barn yard animals and Santa’s reindeer, not to mention angels resting on trees and a grotto with a statue of the Blessed Virgin.
Shrubbery would be dotted with hundreds of colored lights as music filtered about. Cars would stop. Senior citizens peered from their bus windows. Wide-eyed children would take it call in. Neighbors would try and compete. It was no use.
The Cardarellis usually captured top prize in the city’s holiday decorating contest, along with the bragging rights that went with it.
Three days of grip-and-grin decorating led to a season’s worth of joy and conviction for themselves and all those who were touched by their work.
This year it was different. With Joe’s passing in February — a day after his 88th birthday — the tradition appeared to have run its course. But Gertrude wouldn’t hear of it. With the help of family and friends, the Christmas spirit was rekindled as a memorial tribute to her husband.
And that manger? It was built by Joe himself and has withstood the test of time.
“Christmas was his pride and joy,” says Gertrude. “Our home wouldn’t be the same without it. The happiest times were putting up all the decorations. The saddest was when they had to come down. But everything in between was like the twinkle in Santa’s eye.”
On Christmas Eve, the Polish side of Gertrude gushed forth as a former Rowinski. The menu featured everything from oplatek (bread-breaking) to pierogis (little ravioli). And then, back the next day for another traditional meal featuring ham, turkey and all the fixings.
Church was another focal point, whether it was a Polish Mass at St. Michael’s or another at All Saints Church following the merger of Haverhill’s Catholic churches in Haverhill in 1998. When help was sought to erect a manger scene at All Saints, the Cardarellis were quick to respond.
At the other end of town, Dr. Joe Cardarelli Jr. maintains an orthodontist practice on Summer Street. You can’t miss it when you drive by during the holiday season. It’s the one with the Christmas tree all adorned and stretching to the sky.
When young Joe lights his tree, Christmas has officially come to the city.
Well, this year, there’s an added glow. Joe’s daughter Jillian has been making quite the name for herself as a songstress, singing the national anthem at Fenway Park, Bruins and Celtics games, along with the Kennedy Library.
She’s a student at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., with eyes set on the Grand Ole Oprey.
Over Thanksgiving, she drew about 250 patrons to the Roma for a concert, dedicating a Johnny Cash number to her late grandfather.
Three generations of Cardarellis got together this Christmas to remember their patriarch, the guy who was chairman of the board for so many years at Northeast Community Credit Union.
The guy who reached out to the less fortunate as a year-round Santa, helping his church and community without fanfare. He was the eucharistic minister who served the altar of God, with his wife in the same role.
He was also the World War II veteran who was Army through-and-through. When Gertrude took over a business called Merrimack Industrial Finishers, Joe tagged along and turned it into a husband-wife operation making paint for the government.
And then there was Christmas. As memory recalls, I was making the rounds throughout the city one year, photographing the brightest and best-looking homes.
I found my way to Rocks Village and Ayers Village, Ward Hill and Riverside. On a cold winter’s night, Jack Frost was nipping at my nose.
And then I came to the Cardarelli home in all its splendor, perhaps saving the best for last on my route. As I set up my tripod for a time exposure, the door opened and out came Joe, wondering what all the commotion was about.
Was somebody out there pulling a prank?
“Gazette,” I stammered. “Just taking a photo.”
“Well, when you get done out there, come inside and warm up over a hot chocolate and some fresh-baked cookies.”
If nothing else, I went inside to thaw out. The hospitality rendered that evening was a compliment. Such favors stay with you forever.
Now I was at their home again, sharing company once more with an octogenarian who resembled every visage Christmas had to offer, surrounded by oil paintings done by her late husband, bundled inside a houseful of love.
“Joe would have been proud to see his home so festive,” Gertrude said. “He may be gone but his spirit will never die.”
Photographer and writer Tom Vartabedian is retired from The Haverhill Gazette.