The Giglio Feast: History, fun facts, and what to expect at this year’s celebration in Brooklyn
Revelers will once again gather in Williamsburg this week for a festival full of food, dancing, and live music. The Our Lady of Mount Carmel and San Paolino di Nola Feast is based on a tradition that got its start in Italy over 1,000 years ago, with its centerpiece a four-ton 72-foot tower. As part of the neighborhood’s nearly two-week feast, the tall, ornately decorated structure, known as the “Giglio,” is carried through the streets by over 100 men. The Giglio Feast, which runs through July 16, has been held in Williamsburg every July since 1903, nearly two decades before the better-known Feast of San Gennaro was celebrated in Manhattan’s Little Italy. Ahead, learn about the roots of the unique festival, how it’s evolved over the last century, and what to expect this year.
During the 1880s, immigrants from southern Italy, specifically from the town of Nola, landed in Brooklyn. Hoping to keep the tradition of their native country alive, members of the Italian community in Brooklyn made the Giglio feast an annual event.
The feast celebrates the return of San Paolino di Nola, the town’s Catholic hero. As legend has it, in 410 AD North African pirates took over the town of Nola and abducted young men as slaves. After meeting a widow who lost her son to the pirates, Bishop Paolino went in the boy’s place. After a Turkish sultan learned about Paolino’s selfless act, he freed him and allowed the bishop to return home to Nola.
Upon his return, the town greeted Bishop Paolino with lilies (Gigli in Italian), which are symbols of love. According to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, this homecoming became the first observance of “what would develop into an annual sacred event.” Each year following, there was a competition among tradesmen over who could create the best and biggest display of lilies.
Eventually, the competition evolved to include wooden steeples with decorated lilies. Since the 1960s, the tower has been made of metal, with papier-mache carvings of angels and flowers, with San Paolino on top. The structure is supported by four metal legs. The platform features seven poles that stick out evenly from beneath the platform on each side, allowing room for 100 men to lift the Giglio.
Despite never being a religious event, the church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel took over the feast during the 1950s and combined it with the event honoring Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The Giglio Feast is celebrated for 12 days in July and leads to the Our Lady of Mount Carmel feast on the 16th.
During the nearly 12-day event, Williamsburg transforms into a mini Italian villa, with live music, vendors, and games. During the celebration, there are three different lifts: Giglio Sunday, the Night Lift of the Giglio, and Old Timers’ Day.
The lifts involve over 100 men, known as the paranzas, carrying the four-ton tower on poles and walking through the streets of Williamsburg with it. The multi-story structure also has a platform with an entire 12-piece brass band on top playing O’ Giglio’e Paradiso again and again.
2019 Giglio Feast; Photo © 6sqft
For the 2019 event, the church had to find outside volunteers to be paranzas for the first time. As the Wall Street Journal reported, the neighborhood, which has rapidly gentrified in the last two decades, is no longer the Italian enclave it was once. The organizers launched a campaign to recruit strong lifters, seeking out Italian-American organizations and nearby fitness centers.
“They don’t have to be Italian,” Anthony “Nooche” Pennolino told the WSJ. “You can get a fireman or a cop who’s maybe Irish or Polish and they’re engaged with their faith.”
Even if the Italian population is dwindling in Williamsburg, those in the community who have moved away often return for the feast, which offers carnival rides, games, and lots of Italian sausages and powdered zeppoles.
This year, the Giglio Feast runs from Wednesday, July 5 to Sunday, July 16. Get the full schedule for festivities, happening at 275 North 8th Street and Havemeyer Street, here.
Giglio tower being carried by the Giglio Society of East Harlem via Wikimedia
Similar celebrations have popped up across New York City, including in East Harlem and Arthur Ave in the Bronx. Starting on August 10, the Giglio Society of East Harlem will host its annual feast on Pleasant Avenue, which in the past has included four days of festivities, including a sausage and peppers eating contest, live music, and the lift and dancing of the Giglio di Sant Antonio, honoring their patron Saint Anthony of Padua.
Editor’s note: The original version of this story was published on July 12, 2019, and has since been updated.