Every July a few typically sleepy residential streets in Williamsburg erupt into a festival of lights, food, music, and parades. This is, of course, the annual celebration sponsored by Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church, also known as the Giglio Feast. Since so many of us have enjoyed the sights and sounds (and funnel cakes) of this week-long event, it is only prudent that we take a moment to look into the origin and history of this Italian-American tradition.
The Giglio Feast celebrates a selfless act of bravery by Bishop Paolino, who lived in the small Italian city of Nola in the early 5th century. The city was invaded by pirates in 410 AD, and although the Bishop escaped, he returned to find that many of the city’s young men had been sold into slavery. The Bishop offered himself to the pirates in exchange for the release of one of the men, the son of a local widow. The pirates accepted and took the Bishop prisoner instead. The tale of his courage reached the ears of a Turkish ruler, who was so moved by his sacrifice that he arranged for the Bishop’s freedom.
When he returned to Nola he was greeted by the townspeople carrying lilies. Gigli, Italian for lily, traditionally represented love and purity and came to symbolize the Bishop’s selflessness. The procession of lilies became an annual event in Nola, with local merchants competing for the most elaborate display.
Giglio Feast, mid 19th century. Brooklyn Daily Eagle photo.
Centuries later, the Nolani began immigrating to the United States, many settling in Williamsburg. The Giglio Feast was one of the many traditions brought across the Atlantic, celebrated for the first time in 1903. The Feast was organized by the local mutual aid society, Società M.S. San Paolino until 1954, at which point it was taken over by a local church, The Shrine Church Of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
Giglio Feast attendees, 1989. Photograph by Anders Goldfarb.
Since 1954 the Feast has been combined with a second traditional feast honoring Our Lady of Saint Carmel. Celebrated in July, the feast lasts for 12 days and includes religious ceremonies, a street fair, games, food and fundraising for the church.
One of the important activities of the Feast is the “Questua” a tradition that begins at 5am, when loaves of bread are picked up from a local bakery. Over the next twelve hours volunteers walk for miles through the street, distributing bread to local families. The following day is Giglio Sunday, which begins with another procession to pick up important Feast participants and ends at the church for a special Giglio Mass. After a breakfast, it’s time for the lifting and procession of the Giglio.
Lifting the Giglio, 1989. Photograph by Anders Goldfarb.
Over the years the Giglio has evolved into a 4 ton, 65 foot high pyramid of papier-mâché, styrofoam and flowers depicting saints, angels and on the top, Saint Paolino. The Giglio rests on a platform that also supports several musicians and their instruments. In front of a cheering crowd, 112 men lift and “dance” the Giglio to music provided by the band, including the Feast’s traditional song, “O' Giglio 'e Paradiso.” In addition to cheering on the lifters, Giglio Sunday attendees can expect a street fair with games, rides and food.
This is a time for tradition, community and fun; a time for people who have moved away from Williamsburg to come home. This year’s festivities will kick off on Wednesday, July 8th with an opening night coronation Mass at the church followed by a candlelight procession. For a full schedule of the Feast events, check out their official website.
Official Poster, 2015
If you have memories and mementos of Giglio festivals past, we hope you'll join us at the Leonard Branch Library in Williamsburg on the evening of Tuesday, July 14th or the afternoon of Saturday, July 18th. We're inviting community members to contribute their photographs, newsletters, fliers, brochures -- anything that documents life in our borough -- to these scanning events so that we can add these pieces of our shared heritage to the historical record. You don't have to limit yourself to items about the Giglio -- anything that reflects your life in Brooklyn is valuable for future historians! Participants will receive a flashdrive with digital copies of the items they've shared. You can learn more about the project on our blog, or visit our website for more information about how the project works.