The spectacle, which marked 115 years, is a shared celebration that honors San Paolino, the patron saint of the Nolani immigrants that settled in the community in the 1880s, and culminates with the feast day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on July 16.
“In America, this is probably the truest representation of what the feast was in Nola,” said Robert Wines.
Wines, who comes from an Irish-Italian family, explained the feast was an emotional experience since it was instilled in him by his grandmother as a little boy.
This year's festival was especially significant to him and his family, as they remembered his brother and uncle, who both passed away last year.
“We’re doing it in their honor,” he said.
The origin of the festival dates back to 410 AD in Nola, Italy, when North African pirates invaded the town and kidnapped young boys. Saint Paolino, who was moved to compassion, decided to offer himself in exchange for the boys.
Word of the saint’s selfless act spread and reached a Turkish sultan, who negotiated for Saint Paolino’s freedom. Upon his return, the entire town greeted him carrying lilies, a symbol of love and purity.
In Italian, the word “Giglio” means “lily.”
Through the years, farmers, butchers, tailors, bread makers, blacksmiths, cobblers and people of all professions began to produce their own display of lilies as it became an annual celebration to mark the return of Paolino to Nola.
This tradition was eventually brought to Williamsburg by Italian immigrants, where it continues today and is highlighted by the lifting of the Giglio, a tower decorated with lilies that stands 82 feet high.
“It's a great feeling to be here and it’s an unbelievable feeling to see it passed down generation to generation,” Wines said. “I’ve been getting to witness it firsthand with my son.”
His son, Robert Wines, also partook in the celebrations at a young age. This year was the fourth time he participated in the lifting of the Giglio.
“There's no real training for it, but it’s something special when you’re under there with a hundred other guys,” he said.
Wines explained that as the day progresses, the lifters put everything they have to keep the Giglio going further up the block despite exhaustion.
“There's a certain camaraderie under there that keeps everybody going,” he said.
His father said the lifting was a powerful experience.
“When you're under there later in the day, you get filled with different types of emotions throughout the day, and I can't explain that in any other way than divine strength, quite honestly,” he said.
Wines’ son also introduced the festival to his friend, Peter Charalambous, who is Greek and became involved in the celebration three years ago.
“I think it’s great that despite the fact that I'm not part of this church's community, I can still be widely accepted here,” Charalambous said.
Wines said he is glad to see his son keep the tradition alive through his friend, and hopes the feast continues to involve everyone regardless of their background.
“They come every year and that’s what we need, more people to follow the tradition,” he said.