Every July for over a hundred and twenty six years thousands of people have flocked to the streets around Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church for its annual 12-day Italian festival, highlighted by the “dance of the giglio” through the Williamsburg streets. However, the tradition of the Giglio dates way back to the fifth century. The Giglio festival was brought to North Brooklyn by the Nola immigrants who settled in Williamsburg more than one hundred years ago. It 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, guilds and artisans vied with one another to design tall papier-mâché and wooden structures with giant representations of the lily bouquets. When festive music was added in the seventeenth century, the Giglio began to dance. The Giglio used in the yearly celebration in Williamsburg 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.
Generations of local Italian-Americans have taken part in the feast. Today’s lifters can often trace lineages in the feast three or even four generations. Music is such a vital component of the Giglio celebration that it is said that without music, the four-ton Giglio structure would never get off the ground and dance through Williamsburg’s streets the first Sunday after July 4. The official band for the Giglio Feast is the Vecchiano Festival Band, led by Danny Vecchiano who embodies the passing on of Giglio traditions and culture: His great-grandparents came from a town outside of Nola, near Naples, and he is the third generation to be actively involved in the festival. Danny started playing trumpet when he was just eight years old, studying with Sarge Mirando, a veteran trumpet player of the feast. He then studied with band leader Laurence Laurenzano, who after twenty-two years handed over leadership to Danny in 2000. Because he studied with Laurenzano, Danny says, “I kind of got groomed into the job … it was logical. I had a history with the feast and knew all the tunes, and I knew all the people involved with the feast.”
The feast beckons the “Giglio Boys” of the community back home, even if they are living as far away as California they will come back for the feast, reconnecting with their Italian-American heritage. During the years when Williamsburg was a tough place and the community struggled to survive, the feast held the community together and it is a huge source of Italian-American pride. hundreds of families are involved in the preparation for the feast.
The 2014 Highlighted Feast Events:
Opening Night – Wednesday July 9th, 2014
Children’s Giglio I – Thursday July 10th, 2014
Questua – Saturday July 12th, 2014
Giglio Sunday – Sunday July 13th, 2014
Feast Day of Our Lady Of Mount Carmel/Night Lift – Wednesday July 16th, 2014
Old Timers Giglio Sunday – Sunday July 20th, 2014