Thousands flocked to Williamsburg over the weekend for the high-water mark of the annual Feast of Giglio: the lifting of the humongous, seven-story eponymous Giglio by dozens of pious revelers, in celebration of Italian heritage.
The feast — officially named the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel after the neighborhood church of the same name — started last Wednesday, July 6, and will run till July 17 with games, entertainment, and lots and lots of food lining the massive street fair in BillyBurg.
But upwards of 100,000 people, by NYPD estimates, showed up over the weekend for the storied main event on Sunday, the “Dancing of the Giglio,” where over 100 fairgoers propped up the massive, four-ton aluminum tower adorned with papier-mache flowers, angels, and religious figures and walked it all over the neighborhood.
“We wait all year for this,” said Danny Vecchiani, one of the capos of the lifting team. “It’s like our Christmas in July.”
The Williamsburg festival was founded by Italian immigrants from the town of Nola in 1903, near Napoli, who brought many traditions from the old country to honor their patron saint, San Paolino, and the event that led to his canonization.
According to legend, the town of Nola was invaded by pirates from North Africa in 410 AD, who abducted and enslaved local young men. Paolino is said to have offered himself as a slave in exchange for one woman’s son, and he was taken back to North Africa, but only until a Turkish Sultan heard of his heroic acts and ordered him freed. Upon his return to Nola, Paolino was greeted by townsfolk carrying lilies.
When townsfolk later emigrated to Brooklyn, they decided to continue honoring their patron saint in their new home. While the festival has gone on for over a century, its modern iteration hosted by Our Lady of Mount Carmel has been in place since the 1950s.
The feast brings in enough revenue to support the parish for the entire year, says Monsignor Jamie Gigantiello, the pastor at Our Lady of Mount Carmel. And although Williamsburg’s Italian population has declined over the decades, the feast remains a draw not only for Italians but also for newer residents of the neighborhood.
“[This feast] is a great way of reaching out to the newcomers in the neighborhood,” said Monsignor Gigantiello. “They like the tradition and they like the nostalgia.”
This year’s feast is the second of the pandemic era, after thousands packed the streets last year for its return from a 2020 COVID-induced hiatus.
Even though the iconic Dance is over, there’s still time to catch festivities before they end. The Giglio will be lifted twice more: at the Night Lift on Wednesday evening and finally at the Old Timers lift on the afternoon of Sunday, July 17.
There’s also plenty of music and entertainment to enjoy still. And if all that’s not enough, revelers can of course also stuff their faces with delizioso zeppole, cannoli, arancini, and plenty of booze.
Additional reporting by Drew Richardson