Since 1903, the Giglio festival and feast at Our Lady of Mount Carmel has been a staple in the Williamsburg community. The 12-day celebration every July is highlighted by the hoisting of the Giglio, a four-ton, five-story tower decorated with lilies and religious images.
Hundreds of lifters carry the Giglio structure on their shoulders and sway it back and forth at the direction of the Number One Capo, a celebrated leader of the festival. He gives orders at apprentice capos and lieutenants, who then guide the lifters to bring the Giglio throughout festival.
“I waited 58 years for this lift,” said Gerard Langone, this year’s Number One Capo.
The festival kicked off on July 5 with an opening night mass and candlelight procession. It culminates on July 16, with Old Timers Day, Kids Giglio Lift and the Dancing of the Boat in between.
The tradition dates back to 410 AD in Nola, Italy. According to festival organizers, North African pirates invaded the town and kidnapped young boys. Saint Paulinus, southern Italy’s patron saint, was moved to compassion and decided to offer himself in exchange for the boys.
Word of the saint’s self-sacrifice reached the Turkish sultan, who then negotiated for Saint Paulinus’ freedom. When he returned to Nola by ship, the town’s people greeted him with lilies, a symbol of love and purity. “Giglio” is Italian for “lily.”
Throughout the years, farmers, butchers, tailors, blacksmiths, cobblers and other town residents produced their own displays of lilies, which became a tradition. Italian immigrants brought the celebration to the shores of Williamsburg, which is home to a large Italian community.
In the 1950s, a small society that ran the festival merged it with the feast of Our Lady of Carmel, a parish that now oversees much of the activities. Generations of Italian-Americans have been celebrating ever since.
Anthony Desio, who has been a lifter for 21 consecutive years, was born and raised in Williamsburg. Though he no longer lives in the area, he said he still has as strong connection to the community.
“It’s just tradition. You grow up around it, you lived around it your whole life,” he said. “The feast time is Christmas in Brooklyn.
“This is a time of year that the whole neighborhood gets together,” Desio added. “It doesn’t matter that some of these guys, you don’t see a year at a time. You all get back together and it’s like you don’t miss a day, you don’t miss a beat.”
Desio said the key to a successful lift is keeping the eyes focused on the capo, who tells the lifters where to go, and whether to bounce, sway or turn the tower.
Mike Pennino, who is originally from south Brooklyn, said Desio, a close friend, brought him to Williamsburg a few years ago to experience the festival. He’s been participating as a lifter ever since.
“[I’m] a little bit anxious because it is heavy and I do have an ankle injury,” Pennino said before the first lift, “but I’m still here with an ankle brace.
“I really enjoy it. I love the sense of camaraderie,” he added. “You can’t beat the food and the drinks. Everybody’s here just to have a nice time and celebrate the feast.”
As the brass band began playing, the Number One Capo delivered his orders, and hundreds of men, beads of sweat dripping down their faces, lifted the Giglio tower in unison.
Pennino joked that he should go see a chiropractor after the hoisting, but they “usually use our local bartender” for a shot and a beer instead.
“When we leave here, our right shoulders are always lower than our left,” he said.