The 123rd Annual Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and Saint Paulinus of Nola is in full swing! The combination Italian street fair (akin to the San Gennaro festival) and traditional religious observance takes over a small pocket of Williamsburg by The Shrine Church Of Our Lady of Mount Carmel for 12 days every July. Sunday marked the first Giglio lift, during which 130 men carry the 80-foot tall, 3 ton Giglio, as well as a lifesize boat of St. Paulinus, through the streets. And to make sure the lift isn't too easy for these guys, they throw a marching band up there too. Watch:
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:
While in North Africa, word of the courage and self-sacrifice of Paolino spread 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.
If you missed Sunday's lift but still want to experience it yourself, there will be another night lift at 7:30 on Wednesday night. The festival ends on Sunday, and goes down outside the church, which is located at North Eighth Street and Havemeyer in Williamsburg.