You Gotta See It Once! The Amazing Giglio Feast!


If you have lived in North Brooklyn for any amount of time and have never seen the Giglio—you don’t know what you are missing. This celebration of Italian culture is one of the most awesome pieces of street theater you will ever witness.
Every July for over a hundred and twenty six years Italians and thousands of other people have flocked to the streets surrounding Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church on N 8th Street for its annual 12-day Italian festival, highlighted by the “dance of the Giglio” through local streets. However, the tradition of the Giglio dates way back to the fifth century. The Giglio festival was brought to North Brooklyn by immigrants from Nola, Italy who settled here more than a century ago. The festival reenacts a moving tale, passed on through the generations in both Italy and Brooklyn, of sacrifice and homecoming. In the fifth century, Nola was overrun by North African conquerors who took the townsmen as slaves. St. Paulinus, Nola’s bishop, offered himself in exchange for a widow’s only son, and two years later, after he had won freedom for himself and the men of the village, their boat was met by the grateful women of Nola, each waving a giglio, or lily. The earliest Giglio celebrations, honoring Paulinus right after his death, were simply presentations of bouquets of lilies brought to the church in the town center. Soon, the bouquets were mounted on poles, and eventually a base was created to support the poles and a statue of St. Paulinus was placed on top. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Italian guilds and artisans vied with one another to design tall structures with giant representations of the lily bouquets. When festive music was added in the seventeenth century, the Giglio began to dance.

The Giglio tower (via OLMC Feast)
The Giglio tower (via OLMC Feast)

The Giglio used locally in the yearly celebration is a seven-story tower composed of aluminum, papier-mâché, and plastic painted and decorated with gigli and the image of St. Paulinus. A platform at the base of the tower supports a twelve-piece brass band and singer. The entire assemblage—tower and band—is hoisted and carried by 112 dancing and marching men, the paranza (lifters). A separate boat, complete with fitted mast, sail, and rigging, represents the ship that returned St. Paulinus from captivity. Like the Giglio, it has a band and singer and is also carried and danced through the streets. Members of the Vecchiano Festival Band perform on both the Giglio and the “boat.”

Marching band music accompanies the Giglio for much of the way as it is carried along the procession route, but it is the Giglio song that actually makes the Giglio dance. The Giglio’s route is punctuated by a series of “lifts,”by brawny Italian Americans from the area, which last roughly three minutes and cover approximately thirty feet. Each lift begins with the official feast song, written in Williamsburg and used since 1959, “O Giglio e Paradiso.” The band ends the music to the first stanza with a crescendo, the Capo raises his cane, and the 112 lifters become the single paranza that lifts the Giglio off the ground and then makes the structure dance.

The feast beckons the “Giglio Boys” of the community back home, even if they are living as far away as California, to reconnect with their Italian-American heritage. During the years when Williamsburg was a tough place and the community struggled to survive, the feast helped hold the community together and it’s a huge source of Italian-American pride. hundreds of families are involved in the preparation for the feast. Do yourself a favor—go and see this super celebration.

Giglio dates:
July 6th 2016 6pm | OPENING NIGHT
July 7th 2016 6pm | Children’s Giglio Lift
July 9th 2016 10am| La Questua
July 10th 2016 2pm | GIGLIO SUNDAY
July 13th 8pm | Giglio Night Lift
July 17th 2pm | Old Timer’s Day Giglio Lift

Our Lady of Mount Carmel | 275 N 8th Street | Williamsburg, Brooklyn

About Geoff Cobb

Geoffrey Cobb is a brooklyn high school history teacher and writer of the blog historicgreenpoint.wordpress.com. He has lived in Greenpoint for over twenty years and is the author of a history of the area Greenpoint Brooklyn's Forgotten Past.

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