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.