July in New York is a sight to behold. Street festivals abound, kids running amuck, suits lunching in parks, pungent odors adrift in sticky air. Sounds like Heaven, right?
But it is.
They say, against all odds and perhaps their better judgment, that Heaven touches Brooklyn in July. A Heaven that consists of 125 grown men, and a five ton, seven story, hand–crafted, one–of–a–kind papier–mâché statue: the Giglio.
Picture the heart of Williamsburg, Brooklyn in the summertime. Imagine Havemeyer between North 8th and about North 6th paralyzed by a crowd of a thousand, all looking up at the towering spire.
The whole neighborhood comes together for La Festa di San Paolino di Nola. Affectionately called La Festa di Giglio, or the Feast of the Lily, the tradition dates back to the first Nolese immigrants who settled into this enclave of New York. Every summer, they gather in the streets to commemorate the life of St. Paulinus, their patron saint. In 409 AD, the Huns of North Africa overran the Italian peninsula, raiding towns and enslaving men. During the raids, Paulinus fled town with most of the children, saving them from captivity. Upon his return he was given a new mission.
A widow whose only son had been captured by the Huns asked Paulinus to find him in North Africa and bring him home. St. Paulinus embarked on the expedition, and when he found the widow’s son, tried to barter with the king for his safe return. The king refused to be swayed until Paulinus offered himself in place of the child. The king accepted, and Paulinus became his personal slave.
Decorated with lilies and crowned by a five ton statue of St. Paulinus, the spire also carries the weight of a twelve piece brass band, a singer, and a Catholic priest. 125 Italian–American lifters—holding hands, linking arms, sweating—dance the spire down the street. They heave it upward repeatedly at the command of the lift captains, screaming men in bowling shirts that read Capo.
This Feast of the Giglio is one of three such dances that occur in the country every summer, and one of six that occur worldwide.
More than in reverence to St. Paulinus, the crowd gathers here to watch as the men they know in everyday life transform into martyrs. Martyrs, I claim, for having to smell the sweat of their neighbors, the huddled mass of young and old, muscular and obese who lift the spire. As they dance the Giglio down Havermeyer Street, past Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, they become religious sacrifices. The Capi bid them dance the Giglio down the street, starting and stopping every few moments until they reach the statue of the Virgin Mary outside of the Church. At this statue, they spin the Giglio to face the Virgin and they stop in reverence. The band plays “Ave Maria” for the ageing singer atop the spire to belt out. This is his biggest audience, which he reminds watchers at every turn. This is his moment in the sunlight. Forget San Paolino. He’s the star.
And he sings the anthem of the feast, O’ Giglio e’ Paradiso as the lift continues. 125 of the tired, the revoltingly sweaty, dance the spire down the street to meet with the boat, the Giglio’s less heavy but distinctly more quirky counterpart.
Known for his ability to portend the future, Paulinus warned the king of impending danger to his kingdom. The king was so grateful that he granted him his freedom. Paulinus accepted with one caveat: he wanted to bring home all of the Nolese men who had been enslaved during the raids. The king acquiesced, and sent Paulinus and the men back to Nola on the boat of a Turkish sultan who had heard about Paulinus’ virtues.
Gone for two years, the people of the town greeted him on the shore with gigli, lilies, in their hands. After his death, the people of Nola would bring bouquets of gigli to the church. In time, they began to build a base for the flowers, and with more time, they started to place a statue of him on top of the mound. The tradition of the towering spire of lilies was born.
The boat, then, is filled with small Italian–American children dressed in harem pants and turbans, wielding crescent–shaped swords meant to represent the Turkish fleet which brought St. Paulinus and the Nolese men home.
As the boat and the Giglio meet at the corner of Havemeyer and North 8th, the most interesting moment of the feast occurs. The men bearing the two mammoth structures reach out from underneath and clasp hands. They hold hands for no more than thirty seconds and then their arms and the weights upon their shoulders drop. After a brief pause, the lifters of the Boat run underneath the Giglio, and the lifters of the Giglio, bolster the Boat.
This moment reveals the nature of the festival—it is about the sense of security gained from the act of holding hands. The Nolese immigrants who came to New York and settled in Brooklyn created their own enclave and maintained the Feast of the Giglio for not just their patron saint, but for their homesick hearts. The tradition continues because it has kept the community together, clasped in a firm but familiar handshake. Generations who are not even familiar with the life of St. Paulinus perpetuate the tradition. The neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn is no longer the untouched bastion of Nolese immigrants, but the newer arrivals have also become part of the history of the Giglio.
The gripping of hands shows that Heaven does indeed touch Brooklyn in July. A tiny moment reflecting my feelings about the way the world should be, the way my Brooklyn is.
Above: La Festa di Giglio, or Feast of the Lily, in the town square of Nola, Italy, the birthplace of the festival’s patron saint, Paulinus of Nola. The two towers are today’s representations of the “lily.” Their aluminum structure is lined with papier–mâché and wood boards and topped by a statue of the saint.
TAYLOR NAPOLITANO is a junior at Columbia college studying Italian literature. She can be reached at email@example.com