For me, the best festivals in New York are held at Italian churches – the Giglio Festival in Williamsburg,
Brooklyn (July) and the festival of San Genarro in Little Italy, Manhattan (September). By far, the most exciting is the Giglio Festival which has been going on for almost 130 years. The festival centers around a 72-foot statue of Our Lady of Mount Carmel that rests on a four-ton steel frame (more about this later).
I’m not Catholic, but this is the closest to an “Old New York” festival that I can imagine and I went to it every year. First of all, an entire block of the street in front of the church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel gets blocked off and then lined with booths selling all kinds of food and souvenirs. Songs by Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett and Mario Lanza play all the time, except when a live band plays or during the “parade” of the Giglio.
People who grew up in the neighborhood come from all over for a reunion with their neighbors. In talking to them, I get a sense of what this part of Williamsburg was like fifty and sixty years before. I heard about stickball games and who was a two-sewer hitter or even three-sewer hitter (hitting the ball past 2 or 3 manhole covers – which were 90 feet apart). They talked about doo-wop street corner groups, some talked about the Dodgers and the Giants, others about how safe and clean it used to be. You feel a loyalty, a sadness, a loss.
There’s a look to the people – a lot of the women have big hair and tight clothes, the men wear square-hemmed shirts that are not tucked in, and their hair is greased and combed back over their scalps. One year I was there, a man dressed in soft yellow casual clothes stepped out of a black Mercedes. People gathered around him, the men shaking his hand. He was important. Maybe a politician, maybe a community leader. I imagined him as the don of the mafia that controlled that area. I didn’t ask. Why ruin a fantasy?
Every half hour, the statue is “paraded.” A priest and a full band climb onto the steel frame. The priest gives a blessing to the crowd. Then a host of men surround the statue and pick up that four-ton frame on their shoulders to sally it down the block, grunting and straining. The first time I was at the festival was the first time I heard someone say “Madon’ (a mild Italian curse that’s short for “Madonna”). The rest of the crowd cheers them on. The men parade the Giglio until they just about collapse – maybe 25 feet or so. The next half hour when it’s time to carry the statue, a new group of men jump in to do it.
The festival lasts for several days, and I totally recommend going on the days or nights that the statue will be paraded.
More information here: http://olmcfeast.com/
post by Alana Cash