by Gabrielle Mariano
The air was heavy with heat, and the sky sunk down on to the crowded Brooklyn streets. It felt as though swimming would be the only means of travel through the sea of folks. The sun hung lazily against the thick curtains of blue and clarified the heavens with radiant light. It was the hottest day of the year and people flooded every corner of Williamsburg.
The smoky scent of grilled sausage and sweet fried bread filled the air and lingered on skin like tiny beads of sweat. Church bells rang, children smiled and adults spoke in a musical language I did not understand. I held my mother’s hand tightly as we moved slowly at the Feast of St. Paolino and Our Lady of Mount Carmel. I was only a child. I could barely see above the towering heads that surrounded us. Looking upward toward the sun I could see the massive and beautiful structure that danced through the street.
As tall as a building, and wide as a tree, the Giglio was a magnificent statue. It was painted with bright colors, decorated with elegant flowers and displayed images of angels and saints who watched over the hundreds of men who carried them. My dad was one of these strong soldiers, moving such a special and arduous sculpture with grace and care to the beat of the blaring brass band that sat on a platform under that statue, symphonizing uplifting folk songs. This was a tradition that I have witnessed each and every year for as long as I could remember.
The Giglio festival is an Italian holiday that honors St. Paolino, a brave and compassionate man who sacrificed his freedom for the safety of the children of southern Italy. My father would tell me the epic story each year of pirating Huns invading Nola and St. Paolino’s selfless surrender, which ultimately led to the freedom of his people. The word “giglio” translates to “lily” in English, which are the flowers laid at the feet of this remarkable hero, by the townspeople in welcoming him back home upon his release from captivity. Hearing this story always made me so proud of my father for having such an important involvement in this wonderful cultural event.
I eagerly anticipated the Sunday we would drive to Williamsburg to the Feast, which also included a smaller Giglio for children to lift, about a third the size of the bigger one. Up until my seventh year, only boys could participate in the Chilren’s Giglio. This particular year was different however. Finally I would get to be a lifter.
I would be making history as part of the first generation to lift the Giglio. My hair was braided with green, white, and red ribbons. I was well-rested, well-fed, my back was straight and my sisters were by my side. I was ready to lift with family, my fellow Italian-Americans. The music began, loud and so close to where I stood. Everything looked different from under the statue, and I began to worry if I had enough strength to carry it. All eyes were on me, and as the trumpets blew in high chords, my fellow lifters and I braced our shoulders and raised the statue. The crowd cheered as we began to march. I held my head high and a smile emerged. It wasn’t so heavy as a team. The wind caressed my cheek and I took a deep breath. Along with the fresh summer breeze, I also exhaled the extraordinary surroundings. The history, the family, and the joyous celebration that I feel proud to call a part of my heritage is something I will share and treasure. Buona Festa!