85. The Giglio

We read in last week’s New York Times that for the first time in its 116-year tradition, non-Italians would be permitted to lift the Giglio at the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, which takes place every year in July, in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. This neighborhood, where my daughter Maria now lives, was the destination of thousands of southern Italian immigrants and was a majority-Italian neighborhood in the first half of the 20th century. Many came from the village of Nola, outside Naples, and brought their tradition of the Giglio with them, honoring their patron San Paolino, in an annual festival that pre-dates New York’s more famous San Gennaro feast in Little Italy.

Never mind that 95 degrees was predicted. We (meaning me and my good sport husband) had to be there.

The Giglio, translated as “the lily” because that’s what it was originally made of, is a six-story-high, four-ton structure balanced on seven protruding poles, with a statue of Saint Paolino on the top. In the fifth century, Bishop Paolino earned sainthood and the eternal devotion of Nolians by offering himself in place of the town’s young men who had been kidnapped by pirates.At various points throughout the two-week-long festival, teams or paranze of 112 men lift the structure on their shoulders and “dance,” under the direction by a capo, or head, a position of great honor which is reached only after years of participation and leadership.

As one might expect, the crowds came out for the wonderful food, sold by purveyors who had been selling their sausage and peppers at this event for generations. There were candles available at the church to light for loved ones and for “special intentions.”

The formal festivities began with a pitch-perfect, American Idol-style performance of the American and Italian national anthems by the only female in an official role at the event, an 11-year-old girl. Then a blessing from the monsignor, and the singing of the official Giglio song. And then … the lift.

At the signal by the capo, rows of beefy men, shoulder to shoulder, hoisted the platform on their shoulders. Some were coolly expressionless; others grimaced under the strain, made worse by at least a dozen musicians and others standing on the structure above them, adding at least another ton. Then they danced, a few steps forward and backwards at the direction of the capo. Finally, the capo yelled commands in Neapolitan dialect, and the Giglio was dropped with an enormous thud.

According to the New York Times, there are eighty new recruits, bringing the entire squad of lifters to 360, ensuring that the tradition will continue, even with a paranza of mixed heritage. But as one long-time resident is quoted as saying, “No matter who you are or your background, you have to work together. That’s how America works.” How beautiful that in America, people of different backgrounds can join together to ensure that this wonderful, if a bit quirky, expression of faith and ethnic heritage will continue.

Here’s a little film of the Giglio “dancing” to the Giglio song. (Credit: Ben Yagoda.) The shouting is the capo yelling instructions. Be sure to look for the paranza under the platform.

8 thoughts on “85. The Giglio

  1. That was so interesting. And as I watched the video I was thinking “they can’t be actually holding them aloft all this time, can they? Surely I misunderstood … ” and then that “thud” at the end. Wow.


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