The 127th Annual Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and Saint Paulinus of Nola is in full swing in Williamsburg, and Sunday saw the lifting of the Giglio, an 80-foot tall, 3 ton statue. Every year the Giglio is hoisted up by hundreds of brawny guys and paraded around Havemeyer Street outside the church. A big wooden boat is also lifted, and to make the spectacle more challenging, brass bands crowd onto each structure, providing musical accompaniment. It's always a festive scene, with plenty of big sweaty Italian guys yelling at each other and throwing their backs out. Here's video:
The tradition dates back to 410 A.D., when North African pirates overran the town of Nola in southern Italy. Many of the young men were abducted into slavery, but the local biship, Paolino, negotiated for the release of one of the men by offering himself in exchange for the boy. (Paolino's eventual return from slavery is re-enacted by the boat lift.) According to the official history on the church website:
The story, which is passed on through the generations on both sides of the Atlantic, is that around 410 AD, North African pirates overran the town of Nola. In the chaos, Bishop Paolino was able to flee into the countryside with some of the children. Upon his return, Paolino learned, from a sobbing widow that many of the young men, her son included, had been abducted into slavery. Moved to compassion, Paolino offered himself in exchange for the boy and was ferried off, a prisoner of the brigands. While in North Africa, word of the courage and self-sacrifice of Paolinospread and became known to a certain Turkish sultan. Taken 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.
Overjoyed by his safe return, the entire town 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. Through the years, various trade guilds (farmer(ortolamo), butcher(beccaio), tailor(sarto), breadmaker(panettiere), blacksmith(fabbra), cobblers(calzolaio), deli merchants(salumiere), and wine makers(bettoliere) ) began to compete to produce the most sensational display of lilies. Over time, these displays became more flamboyant.
Today, although still called lilies (gigli), they have evolved into huge flower-laden steeples of wood, 50 feet or more in height. In Nola, these gigli structures and a boat (la barca) are carried through the streets on the shoulders of hundreds of men, in remembrance of the return of Paolino to Nola. The atmosphere is quite competitive and each guild hires the best lifters they can secure, because the carrying of the gigli is judged. Creativity of construction and musical accompaniment is also scrutinized even after the formal competition ends, and the men of Nola carry and dance the gigli throughout the night.
This is the tradition that was transplanted to Brooklyn, New York by the Nolani immigrants.
Mayor de Blasio made an appearance on Sunday, and posed for photos "lifting" the Giglio while wearing a hat on backwards. Then he ate some Italian sausage, the Daily News reports.
If you missed Sunday's lift but still want to experience it yourself, there will be another night lift at 7 p.m. on Wednesday night, as well as an "old timers" lift on Sunday, when the festival comes to a close. It all goes down outside the church, which is located at North Eighth Street and Havemeyer in Williamsburg. Here's the schedule.