Platoon of 125 men lifting tower is highlight of Williamsburg’s beloved Giglio Feast

129-Year-Old Festival Has Deep Roots In Catholic Faith and the Community

June 14, 2016 By Francesca Norsen Tate Brooklyn Daily Eagle
This photo spread narrates various aspects of the story of San Paolino’s rescue from captivity. Pictured: the full height of the Giglio right before one of the night lifts a few years ago. Photo courtesy of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church
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Williamsburg’s world-class Italian festival, The Giglio Feast, runs from July 6-17, and is second in size, but 40 years older, than the San Gennaro Festival. The Feast celebrates the dramatic rescue story of St. Paulinus/San Paolino.

The Giglio Feast will have live nightly entertainment, including parades, rides, and games, along with vendors selling Italian specialties and international delicacies. A major highlight of the festival is when 125 men carry the 80-foot tall, four-ton Giglio tower. The word “Giglio” is Italian for lily, and there is a definite religious connection.


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Religious Background:

The story of the Giglio has been handed down for generations on both sides of the Atlantic.  Around 410 AD, North African pirates overran the town of Nola—which is now part of the Metropolitan City of Naples.

In the chaos that ensued, Bishop Paolino (Paulinus) was able to flee into the countryside with some of the town’s children. Upon his return, Paolino learned from a grieving widow that her son was among the many young men who had been abducted by the pirates and forced into slavery. Demonstrating compassion, Paolino offered himself in exchange for the boy and was ferried off, a prisoner of the brigands.

During his enslavement in North Africa, word of Paolino’s courage and self-sacrifice spread and became known to a certain Turkish sultan. Moved 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.

The entire town was overjoyed by Paolino’s safe return, and 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. The Neapolitan immigrants, who had settled in Williamsburg in 1903, brought this tradition to Brooklyn, but with some adaptations.

According to some travel websites, Paolino is said to have returned on June 22, the day that Naples holds its feast.  In Brooklyn, the Giglio Feast is held in conjunction with the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, as St. Mary is the patron saint for the Williamsburg parish at the center of the festivities.

Through the years, various trade guilds started competing to produce the most sensational display of lilies. Over time, these displays became more flamboyant. Today, although still called lilies (the plural being gigli), they have evolved into huge flower-laden steeples of wood, 82 feet in height.

The Festival Highlights

During the 12-day extravaganza, a spectacular hand-crafted five-story tower, featuring St. Paolino’s statue and a 12-piece brass band playing on a platform, is carried on the sturdy shoulders of a 125-man platoon through the streets of Williamsburg.

A re-enactment of San Paolino’s release from captivity includes an ornate, custom-made ship docking with the Giglio tower on the Brooklyn streets, providing a Broadway caliber spectacle.

A “Capo,” an honored gentleman of the Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish, demonstrates the proper way to lift and carry the Giglio. Using a megaphone, the Capo calls out orders to the “lifters.” He commands, “Forward! Up! Down! Dance! Circulate!” The immense tower, defying the laws of gravity, thus “dances.”

The festival begins with an opening night Mass and Candlelight Procession on Wednesday, July 6th, at 6 p.m.  The Giglio will be danced on Sunday afternoon, July 10 and Wednesday night, July 13. There is also a children’s Giglio dance (July 7 at 6 p.m.) with a smaller, 25-foot-tall, version of the tower. In this way, the community’s youth are apprenticed into this tradition.

On Saturday, July 16, the Feast Day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel will begin with a midnight Mass, with Brooklyn Auxiliary Bishop Raymond Chappetto as celebrant. Throughout the day, Masses will be celebrated in Italian, English, Polish, Spanish and Creole. Old Timers’ Day, with Capo, Paranza and Lifter alumni participating, takes place on the closing night, July 17.

The great appeal to veteran Giglio attendees, and first-timers alike, are the Italian delicacies such as zeppole (plural for zeppola) and braciole (plural for braciola, and pronounced brahzul|).

Braciole are savory flatbreads filled with grilled meat—often beef or pork—marinated in a stock and wine, and wrapped along with cheese, mushrooms, spinach and garlic. Zeppole are sweet pastries traditionally filled with custard and topped with confectioner’s sugar.

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For more information and the full Giglio Feast schedule, visit http://www.olmcfeast.com/

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