Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Giglio Feast

Though most of my walking has been concentrated on the the other side of Brooklyn miles away from Williamsburg, I didn't have to stray far from home for this post, a walk of only three or four blocks.

Here in Brooklyn, the feast of St. Paulinus (or San Paolino di Nola), celebrated in June by the church calendar, is celebrated in early July at the church of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in Williamsburg in order to coincide with the feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. This is the site of the well known giglio dance. A traditional highpoint of the Williamsburg summer, this year the first day of the 122nd annual feast was Sunday, July 12.

San Paolino was a 5th century bishop in the town of Nola in Italy. (Nola is near Naples in the Campania region.) According to one of the stories attached to Paolino, while he was bishop the children of Nola were being kidnapped and enslaved by the barbarian Huns. A woman of the town asked him if he could try to free her child, which he agreed to do. The only way he could free the boy was to offer himself as a slave in the boy's place. He remained a slave for some years until the Huns decided to free him. However, he refused to return to Nola without all of the people of the town who had likewise been enslaved, which the Huns agreed to. Bishop Paolino then returned to Nola by boat and was greeted by the joyous townsfolk who met the boat carrying lilies.

The feast commemorating the return of San Paolino to Nola eventually came to include what is today the dance of the giglio (giglio being the Italian word for lily). As a representation of the lily, the present day giglio is a tall open-frame, needle-like structure surmounted by a statue of Paolino and mounted on a platform large enough to hold a small band along with several other people. The giglio is also adorned with portraits of the Blessed Mother, Sacred Heart, and other religious symbols. The celebration of the feast was brought to Williamsburg over a hundred years ago by the people of Nola who settled here.

I assume most people know the words of the Star Spangled Banner (of which only the end is on the video, anyway), but if anyone wishes to follow the singing of the Italian national anthem, the verse sung at the feast in the video below is here:

Fratelli d'Italia,
l'Italia s'e' desta,
dell'elmo di Scipio
s'e cinta la testa.
Dov'e la vittoria?
Le porga la chioma,
che schiava di Roma
Iddio la creo'.

The giglio tower stands at one end of the block in front of the church. At the other end is another structure representing the boat that carried the bishop on his return to Nola. The dance symbolizes the saint’s return as both the giglio and the boat are carried toward each other, finally meeting in front of the church. A man who was standing next to me on that first Sunday referred to this as “the kiss” and called it the emotional high point of the celebration. “It’s just beautiful,” he said, shaking his head in wonder. You can see this special moment in the video below.

All the movements of the giglio, the lifting, carrying, swaying, turning, are done at the direction of the capo, perhaps the most honored position at the feast. In the videos here you will hear the capo shouting out the directions to the lifters. As one indication of how honored a man is to be chosen a capo, he will generally dedicate the different lifts to his family members, wife, children, and so on.

The video below gives a good close-up view of the men who expend a great deal of their strength, sweat, and love to carry the giglio during the feast.

Given that you have enough men to lift and carry the giglio, it might seem like a simple task to move the platform one short block to the church, but the whole ceremony takes several hours. It begins with the blessing of the giglio and the lifters and the singing of the American and Italian national anthems. The enjoyment comes from the different lifts and turns, the singing and the other ceremonials involved, like stopping to pay respects to the family of a past capo.

It is not all just the giglio dance, of course. As with any respectable church feast there are rides for the kids, fun and games, sausage & peppers, calzone, zeppole, old and new friends and neighbors, that magic mix that summer memories are made of.

The giglio feast is certainly one of the high points of the parish year and, like a homecoming celebration, is said to draw back each summer scores of people who have moved out of the parish. Add to these the parishioners themselves, the other residents of Williamsburg who come to enjoy the feast, people from all over Brooklyn, people from outside of Brooklyn, well, you get the picture.

Especially on the opening day of the feast, there are thousands of people congregating mainly in the two blocks of Havemeyer Street in front of the church. I was surprised I got any pictures at all since each time I held the camera up it seemed like someone walked in front of me or jumped up in front of me or started waving to someone in front of me or jostled me to get by.

You do have to be down in the crowd to experience the excitement when the men lift and dance with the giglio, but I have to say that to get some good pictures I would love to have been on the roof of one of the buildings overlooking the church. If anyone reading this lives in one of those buildings and wants to invite over a giglio lover next July, I wouldn’t say no!

I am not anything like an expert on the giglio feast since this was the first one I had gone to, so if anyone wants to correct my errors or add more information or share their own memories in a comment, please do, I would really welcome it.