By: Raymond Guarini
Italian American tradition has many cornerstones, and the Dance of the Giglio is one the most awe-inspiring. To build a Giglio is a feat onto itself, and then to dance this multi-story piece of art is another grand accomplishment altogether. The Giglio Boys of Williamsburg along with their friends from East Harlem, Franklin Square Long Island and more Italian men from other varied Italian enclaves throughout the tri-state area, were able to assemble a Giglio and dance it despite the challenges posed by one of the most intense years in American history, 2020. Since 1903, the Italian men of Williamsburg have crafted a multi-story wooden structure with ornate carvings of Catholic saints that weighs thousands of pounds. Underneath this magnificent structure, about 120 men lift the structure up on their shoulders and bring it to life with motion; all of which is done in unison with Italian folk music.
This year, without a feast to complement, the Dance of the Giglio still went on. Despite not being held at its usual time of the year and without the prolific promotion that the Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Feast usually receives, the neighborhood was still out in full force to maintain their tradition without pause for 117 years-pandemic or no pandemic-these men fulfilled their right to celebrate the most important part of their religion and heritage. I am fortunate to know quite a few of these men and call them friends. The Giglio is not just an event, it is life for them. Their calendars revolve around the Dance of the Giglio. To deny these men their tradition is to deny them life. I am very proud of their courage and their loyalty to their Southern Italian roots to risk life and limb to honor San Paolino and their ancestors by coordinating a low-key yet amplified “lift” this year.
Directly from their website, a brief explanation of the Dance of the Giglio:
The Feast Ritual
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 usually opens the week after the 4th of July, and runs for 12 days including the feast day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on July 16th. 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, the Night Lift of the Giglio, and 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 are all part and parcel of the love they have for San Paolino. Every year, the young and old of this neighborhood anticipate the Giglio Feast. 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.” Msgr. Calise, 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.
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 devotion to 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 own 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—Società 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, the Società 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 holds 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 (ortolano), 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 (gigli), they have evolved into huge flower-laden steeples of wood, 82 feet in height. In Nola, these gigli 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 gigli 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 gigli throughout the night.
Link to Our Lady Of Mt. Carmel Giglio Feast website: https://www.olmcfeast.com/