Lifting spirits: Thousands flood Brooklyn streets for first dance of Giglio since pandemic struck

Participants lift the Giglio during the Annual Italian Parish Feast in Williamsburg on Sunday, July 11, 2021.
Photo by Caroline Ourso

Brooklyn’s storied Giglio Feast made its triumphant return this week and on Sunday, July 11, revelers took to the streets to celebrate the first “dancing of the Giglio.”

The 12-day feast, officially known as the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel after the eponymous church in Williamsburg, began on July 7 and will run through July 18. Sunday’s procession marked the feast’s main event, and also included the annual boat parade followed by an “old-timer’s lift” after the closing ceremony.

The feast is centered around a huge, seven-story-tall, four-ton tower, the namesake Giglio, which is made of aluminum, adorned with papier-mache flowers, angels, and religious figures. Several times over the course of the feast, the tower is lifted by over 100 men and walked around in the streets of Williamsburg, complete with a brass band performance at the tower’s base.

Our Lady of Mount Carmel has organized the feast since the 1950s. In 2019, the festival almost didn’t go on when the church faced a shortage of volunteers to carry the Giglio (pronounced jeel-e-o), but eventually managed to recruit lifters from outside the parish.

The Giglio tower.Photo by Caroline Ourso

The feast’s hiatus in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic was the event’s second cancellation in 118 years.

For lifter Dan Mace, Sunday’s procession felt like a homecoming.

“You always remember how much you miss something when you don’t get to do it for a year,” said Mace, who has lifted the Giglio each year since he was 12. In 2010, he became an apprentice capo, or captain, of the lift.

For others, the dancing of the Giglio served as a reunion.

“It’s great to be back,” said 94-year-old Joe Martino, who celebrated not only the lifting of the Giglio Sunday, but also seeing his friend Joey Langone, 70, for the first time in person since before the pandemic.

“Where’s the oxygen?” Langone joked between lifts.

Joe Martino, left, and Joey Langone smile during the feast.Photo by Caroline Ourso

The two tuned in to last year’s livestream, but said nothing compares to being there in person.

“This is something spiritual, I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Martino said. “The only time I missed it before the pandemic was during the war.” 

And still, for some, it was their first time.

“This is like a carnival, such great energy,” said Alexandra Finch, who attended with Clarissa Passarinho. Finch donned an Italian flag in her hat.

This year’s feast includes a nine-night Solemn Novena, celebrated by Monsignor David Cassato of Bensonhurst’s St. Athanasius Roman Catholic Church, with prayers dedicated to a special intention each night. Sunday’s Novena will be dedicated to those who have died from COVID-19.

Lifters hoist the tower.Photo by Caroline Ourso

Among those honorees are Joseph Furante, a lifter of over 50 years who died of COVID-19 on Feb. 5, 2020. He was 81 years old.

Furante’s son, John, helped lift the Giglio in his honor.

“He said something bad would happen, he knew,” John said of his father’s illness. “It was the worst thing in the world.”

Also among the crowd Sunday was Republican mayoral candidate Curtis Silwa, who received resounding applause from the crowd.

The Williamsburg festival was founded by Italian immigrants from the town of Nola in 1903, who imported many traditions from the old country into modern festivities to honor their patron saint, San Paolino (Saint Paulinus in Latin), and the event that led to his canonization.

According to legend, the town of Nola was invaded by pirates from North Africa in 410 AD, who abducted and enslaved local young men. Paolino is said to have offered himself as a slave in exchange for one woman’s son, and he was taken back to North Africa, but only until a Turkish Sultan heard of his heroic acts and ordered him freed. Upon his return to Nola, Paolino was greeted by townsfolk carrying lilies.

Mike Avedo, center, directs a lift during the dancing of the Giglio.Photo by Caroline Ourso

The tower is carried through Brooklyn, and in Nola, to symbolize Paolino’s return. Furthermore, the boat paraded through the streets on Sunday is meant to represent the ship that returned him from captivity. 

The next big lift will be the Night Dancing of the Giglio, scheduled for Wednesday, July 17 at 7:30 p.m.