New York City has such a wide array of local traditions, rituals and festivals that one can live in the town for 20 years and fail to attend some of the major annual events. Such was the case with me and the Giglio Festival in Williamsburg.
For years, I'd wake up on a morning in July, open the paper, see a picture of the towering Giglio being hoisted by scores of beefy men down Havemeyer Street, slap my head and say, "Did I miss it again?"
I wasn't about to let that happen one more year, so, despite the heat advisory, despite the wife's wish to stay home and work, despite the kid's lack of enthusiasm, I loaded the family onto the G train and headed to Williamsburg.
I was surprised to see that the festival and fair are pretty much jammed into a couple blocks, one on N. 8th and one on Havemeyer. It always looked like such a vast affair on the television. The Williamsburg feast is reputedly the oldest Giglio event in the U.S., having begun in 1887 at Our Lady of St. Carmel. The first Giglio to dance through the streets was lifted by the San Paolo society (in honor of San Paolino of Nola) in 1907. The two groups joined forced in 1957. The event pays tribute to a fifth-century Catholic bishop from Nola, Italy. He sits atop the Giglio (Italian for "lily") itself, an 80-foot, several-ton pillar of wood and paper mache (oh, and several local capos, a band and a bishop or two).
The Giglio is really quite an awesome sight, towering over all the surrounding, low-slung buildings. Milling around in the crowd were large men in red t-shirts. These, I understood, were designated Giglio lifters. I'm guessing those special red shirts came in only one size: XXL.
A short man with glasses and a casual familiarity with the crowd climbed aboard the Giglio and began the ceremony, telling everyone he loved them several times. Then a priest and an auxiliary bishop from Philadelphia gave their blessing. I don't know what an auxiliary bishop is, but his miter is a might smaller than a real bishop's. Then the mike was handed over to a guy introduced only as "Jimmy," who sang the national anthem with a voice worthy of a community opera troupe, and then the traditional Giglio song, a jaunty romp with Italian words.
The short man then instructed the crowd for about 15 minutes to make some space. No one listened much. Finally, the Giglio was lifted by some very honored, but unhappy, sweating men who looked this/far from a heart attack. They stopped several times to tell the crowd to move back. ("All you standing by the clam bar, you gotta move!")
Then a float of a giant ship rounded the corner of N. 8th, headed on a collision course with the Giglio. No one I asked knew the significance of the ship or the Turk who seemed to be guiding it. But, as I understand it, San Paolino once surrendered his own freedom to save a widow's son from Nola from slavery under the "Huns" of North Africa. The leader of the Huns came to respect Paolino and made him his personal slave. Paolino had a Joseph-like ability to predict the future and once saved the head Hun's from an impending danger, so the Hun granted him his freedom. Paolino insisted all the men of Nola in captivity return with him. The Hun agreed and the Nola men and the saint returned to Nola on the boat of a Turkish sultan. The townspeople greeted the saint with lilies, or gigli. After a few years, the lilies were so numerous, they were mounted on poles.
And there you have it!—a weird festival that's endured for 16 centuries since then! When a small Italian town latches on to a patron saint, it never lets go.