Italian religious festival of the Giglio draws thousands in Brooklyn
The 125th festival of the Giglio, in which a tower capped by a statue of St. Paulinus of Nola is carried and danced through the streets on the shoulders of 100 men, draws thousands to Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood.
An Old World-style festival in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn draws thousands each summer to watch a towering statue of St. Paulinus of Nola “danced” through the neighborhood’s streets. Here, as in Nola in the Italian Province of Campagna, Paulinus is honored in La Festa dei Gigli, or festival of the lilies. Legend has it that after a North African pirate raid on Nola, a number of people were held captive. Paulinus offered to exchange his freedom for that of a captured child and was thus taken to North Africa as a prisoner. One sultan was so moved by this heroic deed that he freed Paulinus and his countrymen whose return home was greeted by lily bearing townsfolk—the lily, “giglio” in Italian, being a symbol of love and freedom.
In a section of Williamsburg first settled by Italian immigrants from Nola in the 1880s, among the parishioners of the Roman Catholic church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the festival has evolved into an extraordinary and unlikely summer display. A modern “giglio”, a roughly 65’ tall (nearly 20m) tower weighing about 4 tons (over 3.6 metric tones) that is topped by a statue of Paulinus is borne and “danced”—bounced up and down and swayed back and forth through the streets on the shoulders of over 100 men to the tunes of a brass band, itself part of the whole carried display.
The tower stands on steel I-beam legs with thick, foam rubber padded cross-beams. After a blessing from the parish priest, the band plays, and the bearers lift the tower and attached bandstand by these cross beams. The procession is on. Sometimes going forward, sometimes back, sometimes turning, at least once a 360 degree turn is made. Each lift can take 2 or 3 minutes. Then there’s a rest and they start again, with some changes in bearers throughout the 2-hour procession.
Remarkably, the procession takes place twice during the festival: once on Giglio Sunday—this year July 8—and again one other evening of the 12 day festival. On Sunday the giglio meets a boat, similarly borne, on which stands a band, a singer, a Turkish sultan and a group of boys showering the crowd with confetti.