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THE GIGLIO FEAST

 BRIEF HISTORY

 In Italian Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the residents of the community look forward to the annual Giglio Feast held every July. Since 1903, when the Nolani immigrants first held their transplanted feast in this Brooklyn neighborhood, this festa has attempted to maintain many of the traditions from the Mezzogiorno, while adjusting to the new culture in America and accommodating the pressure to change.

 The Nolani, who settled in this section of Brooklyn in the 1880s as the flood tide of southern Italian immigration washed upon the American shores were eager to pay homage to their patron saint, San Paolino (the Catholic Church prefers the Latin pronunciation, Saint Paulinus) However, there were more pressing tasks to accomplish first. Along with their co-religionists, the Italian residents contributed to the building of the original Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church (at North 8th Street and Union Avenue). The devotion of all southern Italians to the Madonna is legend, but their adoration of la Madonna Della Carmine (Our Lady of Mount Carmel) is of the highest order. As important as the Catholic Church was to these people, they still desired to pay homage to San Paolino. It is important to point out that the saints belonged, in the eyes of the peasant immigrant, more to their town or village, than to the institutional church. Thus, in the case of honoring San Paolino, the responsibility in the United States fell not upon their parish, but to a mutual aid society which had been formed M.S. San Paolino . The preferred method of meeting this obligation was to hold an annual feast in honor of the saint in question. From 1903 to 1954 M.S. San Paolino took responsibility for the operation of this annual feast in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

 This feast, which has been taking place in Brooklyn for over 100 years, commemorates an extraordinary bit of southern Italian history which culminated in the canonization of an erstwhile bishop of the small city of Nola. Not even Catholic until his thirty-seventh year, Paulinus was destined to become a renowned religious hero of that region. Though he was to serve as Bishop of Nola from 409 AD to 431 AD, it was an alleged episode, that took place shortly after his elevation to bishop, for which the Nolani hold him in such high regard.

The story, which is passed on through the generations on both sides of the Atlantic, is that around 410 AD, North African pirates overran the town of Nola. In the chaos, Bishop Paolino was able to flee into the countryside with some of the children. Upon his return, Paolino learned, from a sobbing widow that many of the young men, her son included, had been abducted into slavery. Moved to compassion, Paolino offered himself in exchange for the boy and was ferried off, a prisoner of the brigands. While in North Africa, word of the courage and self-sacrifice of Paolino spread and became known to a certain Turkish sultan. Taken with the tale of altruism, the sultan intervened, negotiating for the freedom of this holy man. Through the sultan 's efforts, Paolino and his paesani, were freed.

 Overjoyed by his safe return, the entire town greeted him carrying lilies, symbolic of love and purity. That joyous homecoming jubilee is considered the very first observance of what would develop into an annual sacred event. Through the years, various trade guilds (farmer(ortolamo), butcher(beccaio), tailor(sarto), breadmaker(panettiere), blacksmith(fabbra), cobblers(calzolaio), deli merchants(salumiere), and wine makers(bettoliere) ) began to compete to produce the most sensational display of lilies. Over time, these displays became more flamboyant.

 Today, although still called lilies (Giglio), they have evolved into huge flower-laden steeples of wood, 50 feet or more in height. In Nola, these Giglio structures and a boat (la barca) are carried through the streets on the shoulders of hundreds of men, in remembrance of the return of Paolino to Nola. The atmosphere is quite competitive and each guild hires the best lifters they can secure, because the carrying of the Giglio is judged. Creativity of construction and musical accompaniment is also scrutinized even after the formal competition ends, and the men of Nola carry and dance the Giglio throughout the night.

 This is the tradition that was transplanted to Brooklyn, New York by the Nolani immigrants. It would be embraced stateside by all of those Italians who had emigrated from towns and villages surrounding Nola. World War II diverted the community's energies (and men) in another direction and the Giglio Feast was discontinued temporarily. It would not be until June 22,1949 (the feast day of San Paolino) that this feast was reinstituted.

 In the 1950s, despite the controversy it caused in the community, The Shrine Church Of Our Lady of Mount Carmel took over the reins of this important feast. Almost immediately, the church combined the Giglio Feast with the feast honoring Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Since 1958 and the merging of the two saint days into one celebration (known as the Cooperative Feast), the Giglio Feast has been celebrated in July, with all activities leading up to its culmination on July 16th, the feast day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Since the Cooperative Feast came into existence, there has been a juxtaposing of religious, secular, traditional, and ethnic components within this celebration.

 

THE RITUAL OF THE FEAST

 Through the years, each generation has been steadfastly loyal to the traditions embodied by the Giglio Feast. Grandparents, parents and relatives have passed down the importance of la festa. In Italy, they are most important aspect of religion for the men. To a slightly lesser degree, this holds true for immigrant and second-generation, Italian-American males.

 Today, the feast opens 10 to 12 days before the feast day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and lasts from 10 to 12 days. During this period, there will be a continuous celebration of religious activities in the church (daily masses, novenas and processions) and secular activities in the streets (social events, food concessions, and, games and chance). In addition to its socio-religious aspects, the feast generates needed revenue for the Shrine Church of Our Lady Mount Carmel.

 The focal point of feast activities is Giglio Sunday and its follow-up, Old Timers' Day. Usually, Giglio Sunday is scheduled for the first Sunday after Independence Day, with the feast opening a few days prior. The Italian Williamsburg community holds three holidays dear, Christmas, Easter and the Giglio Feast. The celebration, fanfare, homage and devotion is all part and parcel of the love they have for San Paolino . Every year, the Giglio Feast is anticipated by the young and old of this neighborhood. For those involved in feast activities, the feast dates take precedence over all other responsibilities.

 The pageantry and religiosity of the Giglio Feast is the result of much planning according to ceremonial dictates. Indeed, this feast has been a mainstay and has flourished for so long because of the planning behind it. By the first of each year, the feast executive committee starts to meet with church officials to map out an agenda and format. General meetings (first on a semi-weekly, then weekly basis) are scheduled, which continue right up to the feast, with attendance increasing as the date draws closer. The central purpose of these meetings is to plan and implement all facets of the feast.

 These paranza (lifter) meetings reinforce the statuses of important members of the feast hierarchy. The emphasis is on camaraderie, friendship, and cooperation between various cliques working toward a successful feast. Subcommittees are created and new appointments (capos, apprentice capos, lieutenants, committee chairmen) are made, based upon their work for the church and the feast. Each meeting opens and closes with an invocation: "Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, pray for us; San Paolino, pray for us." Monsignor Cassato, the pastor, gives a homily or offers a feast related story; the men restate family ties and friendship lines under the guise of banter, jokes, arguments, and long-winded speeches. By the last meeting, when feast tee-shirts, caps, and scarves are distributed, all plans are in place and the men eagerly await the opening of the feast especially, the specific Giglio activities.

 On the day before Giglio Sunday, there is aQuestua procession. Preparation begins at 5:30 A.M. when a crew of men drive to a local bakery to pick-up and count the loaves of bread for distribution. By 9 A.M., over one hundred Questua committee members, musicians, police, and children have congregated and are enjoying breakfast at the home of a former Capo Number One, Jimmy Smith, across the street from the church. At 10 A.M., the bread is blessed and crowd breaks up into distribution crews. Each crew consists of a chairman, money managers, children who bag the bread, a band, and the police who maneuver this sizable assemblage through the Brooklyn traffic.

 There are be prearranged stops en route. Certain feast devotees have refreshments for the crews. The band plays the Giglio Song and a few other requests Often, people make considerable donations to the church, and the crews walk for miles and hours in the hot, sticky July weather until all the bread has been distributed. By 4 P.M. the crews return to the church and disperse. In addition to raising some money for the church, the Questua procession is the traditional signal to the community that the next day is Giglio Sunday.

 Giglio Sunday begins with a line of march. The men (chairmen, lifters, priests, lieutenants and band) assemble at the church and begin a march to designated homes to pick up important feast personages. Each stop is, in essence, a ritual within a ritual, with family, friends and well- wishers offering food, setting off fire crackers, and requesting songs of the band. Of course the most heard and requested song of the day is the Giglio Song (O' Giglio'e Paradiso), the reprise is played and sung hundreds of times to the never-tiring throng. When the enlarged group reaches the Capo's residence, the fanfare is always more elaborate, as befits his honored position, in fact, the route is designed so that the last to be picked up is the Capo Paranza, who assumes his rightful place as leader.

 In full strength now, the line of march, accompanied by a military honor guard, returns to the church in time for the special 11:00 AM Giglio Mass.. Participant-observation and interviewing indicates that 50% of the lifters attend this Sunday mass. With the band still playing, the parade enters Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church and is greeted by clapping parishioners and visitors. The men take their places in front of the church, being seated in reverse order of importance. The music ceases and the clapping subsides for the reverent part of the service, the celebration of the mass. Often religious dignitaries from "Rome, the local bishop's office and neighborhood clergy of other faiths are represented on the altar. The homily always illuminates the history and tradition of the Giglio, as Monsignor Cassato electrifies the faithful with his fiery, energetic, and poignant presentations. Once the mass is over, the Giglio Song is reprised. Lifters and attendees clap wildly, in time to the song as they spill excitedly into the streets.

 The men head up Havemeyer Street to the parking lot of a local restaurant where they are served "army style" a coffee- and- danish breakfast. On the street nearby, the men purchase white carnations, some of which they spray red and green to approximate the colors of the Italian flag, and place them in the crevice of their caps. Then they drift back to await the start of the "dancing" (lifting and moving) of the Giglio and the boat (la barca).

 The Giglio tower is a heavy structure weighing about 4 tons and standing 65 feet in height. It was originally built of wood, but since 1966, in Brooklyn, the framework of the Giglio has been constructed of metal. The front of the structure is divided into six panels of papier-mache saints, angels, flowers and a map of Italy. On top the Giglio is a statue of San Paolino. The tower is anchored on a square platform, large enough to accommodate a band and singer/M.C. The entire weight rests on four sturdy metal legs. Beneath the platform, a line of seven evenly spaced metal poles (I-beams) protrude at a length of four feet on each of four sides. Four men to a pole, on bent knees, position their shoulders and when 112 men simultaneously stand erect, the Giglio is off the ground; it is a lift. La barca is constructed in the same fashion and is lifted by the same principle. Riding in the boat is a band and singer, the Turk, and young boys, dressed in Arabian costumes who shower the audience with confetti.

 The men stand around the Giglio, near their poles, talking among themselves or with loved ones in the crowd, waiting with nervous energy for the first lift. Finally, the moment is at hand as the band and singer climb into position. The pastor blesses the structure and the lifters, he says the invocation to Our Lady of Mount Carmel and San Paolino, with the men responding, "Pray for us." The national anthems of America and Italy are played. By this time, the more impatient lifters are calling out, "Musica!" and the band again plays the Giglio Song Numbering somewhere between five to ten thousand, the crowd, like the lifters, is now clapping and cheering. The men are situated under their poles. They will hold the structure aloft while the support blocks are taken away (two of its legs are on the curb and the other two are on the street), then carefully they walk the Giglio off of the sidewalk.

 Each ensuing lift follows the same format with certain variations. The singer/M.C. announces a lift to the crowd over the P.A. system. The Capo Paranza with his cane of office stands in front of the Giglio, making sure everyone is in place, he signals the band to begin. The men listen for the end of the first stanza of the Giglio Song, because most of them do not have a view of the Capo Paranza , who thrusts the cane in the air as a signal for the lifters to straighten their legs and elevate the structure The Capo makes constant gestures with his cane, calling out instructions, which are picked up by lieutenants at the corners of the structure and relayed to the lifters.. A whirling motion of the cane signals the band to stop. At the command, "musica," a second tune begins. The men dance the Giglio to the chosen choreography until the Capo signals a halt.

 The Capo then shouts four commands in the dialect of the Nolani: "Uaglio! (Boys!); Aizati i spalli"(Lift your shoulders); Acconge i cosce"(Tighten your legs); "Aggiet!" (Throw it!)." On the last command, the men bend their legs allowing the Giglio to crash to the pavement. The greater the impact, the more San Paolino above shakes, the more exuberant the cheers from the crowd. The men come out to hug, clasp, and congratulate one another, friends, and relatives.

 After a short respite, the Giglio Song is played anew and the men take their positions again. Each lift covers 20 to 40 yards and lasts from one to four minutes. There are several lift variations, including a complete rotation (called a 360); a backward march, a quick drop and lift, (called a #2 and a favorite of those who appreciate the difficulty of such maneuver), as well as swaying and bouncing of the Giglio .

 The lifters repeat this scenario again and again for several hours. At the same time, one block away, the boat crew is dancing la barca in separate lifts. Musical choices, other than the much-played Giglio Song, include Italian standbys like "Bella," "Quanda Mammada Ti Fatta," Roma March," "Scapricciatello,""Uei Marie," and"Un Tazze di Caffe." American favorites, such as "New York, New York," and the movie themes from "Rocky" and "Star Wars" can be heard.

 The high point of the day occurs at the cross streets of Havemeyer and North 8th. At this juncture, the Giglio and la barca meet; the front ranks of each structure clasp hands in the symbolic re-enactment of the historic return of San Paolino to Nola. As difficult and intricate as it is, this maneuver is the one that the men look forward to most because of its symbolic importance. It touches the hearts of lifters, community dwellers, and visitors alike.

 Giglio Sunday is special day to each and every man that has held the position of Capo Paranza. Through a full commitment to church and feast activities, over many years, the capo rises in the feast hierarchy. This is a day that he has dreamed about for most of his life. While he has had to make so many decisions concerning the activities of this day, everything culminates in the capo raising his cane to make the Giglio dance. Remembering his first lift as Capo Paranza, Jimmy Dellacono stated, "It's a feeling that you can't even start to explain."

 The Sunday after Giglio Sunday is "Old Timers Day," the day that honors all former Capos. On this day, each Capo is afforded an elaborate introduction (including nickname, characteristic data, and the playing of his special trademark song). Individually, the former capos through a phalanx of applauding lifters to the front of the Giglio. Each Capo leads a predetermined number of lifts throughout the day. There is friendly competition between the former capos. Each puts the men through more difficult, energetic, and enduring lifts. These former capos are the links to other feasts and other times; the men display their continuing respect by obeying their commands, once again. On various levels, the residents and lifters know that Old Timer's Day is a celebration of the community. It glorifies the neighborhood's history by honoring those representatives of different times, eras, community challenges and victories. Reminiscing about any Capo stirs memories of family members, living or deceased, in terms of their involvement with the feast, and neighborhood.

 Joseph Sciorra makes the interesting argument that, "like the Giglio itself, the song "O' Giglio 'e Paradiso" has become a key symbol for the community". Sciorra quotes an unidentified neighborhood man's explanation of the song's power to stir emotions: "You get a feeling when you hear the music. When they play the Giglio song, you start bouncing with the music. It goes through you. You can't fight it. It's a feeling that automatically comes to you. It gets in your blood". Sciorra concludes that O' Giglio'e Paradiso , "releases a flood of memories of past feasts; it evokes shared feelings and ideas. Besides becoming an auditory symbol of the event, ultimately it has come to stand for the community itself".

 During the feast, another important ritual, geared toward the socialization of the children of the neighborhood, is enacted. Scaled- down versions of the larger structures are employed for the dancing of the children's Giglio and boat. The next generation of lifters, with their own leadership of capos and lieutenants, are dressed in caps, kerchiefs and special tee shirts, as they proudly take part in their own pageantry. The children's Giglio serves as a preparation for that day when, at the age of 16, they can become lifters. It is expected that the children of those now involved with the feast will become involved in the future. The dancing of the children's Giglio reinforces this expectation each year.

 The following has been excerpts from Salvatore Primeggia and Joseph A. Varacalli

 

 


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Revised: 14 Aug 2014 11:21:10 -0400 .

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