New York City’s biggest, most famous and longest running religious festival – The 92nd Annual Feast of San Gennaro, will take place in Little Italy for 11 days beginning on Thursday, September 13, and continuing through Sunday, September 23. The Feast is presented by Figli di San Gennaro (Children of San Gennaro), a not-for-profit community organization which has produced and operated the Feast since 1996.
San Gennaro is the Patron Saint of Naples. The first Feast in New York City took place on September 19, 1926, when newly arrived immigrants from Naples settled along Mulberry Street in the Little Italy section of New York City and decided to continue the tradition they had followed in Italy to celebrate the day in 305 A.D. when Saint Gennaro was martyred for his faith. The immigrant families on Mulberry Street who started the feast, erected a small chapel in the street to house the image of their patron Saint. They invited everyone in the neighborhood to join in the celebration on the Saint’s feast day. The devoted would pin an offering to the ribbon streamers that were hung from the statue’s apron, a tradition that continues to this day. The money was then distributed to the needy and poor in the neighborhood. Over time, the festival expanded into an 11-day street fair organized and run by people outside the neighborhood. It is now an annual celebration of food and drink, and a major tourist attraction.
The street festivities, including parades, entertainment, food stands plus a cannoli-eating and meatball eating contest, are capped on September 22nd with the annual San Gennaro Blood Drive. There will be indoor and outdoor dining at 35 of Little Italy’s most famous restaurants and more than 300 licensed street vendors selling international foods and souvenirs.
Centered on Mulberry Street, which is closed to traffic for the occasion, the festivals features Italian foods from sausage to zeppole, street vendors, games, parades and other attractions. The Grand Procession is held on the last Saturday of the feast, immediately after a celebratory Mass at the Church of the Most Precious Blood. This is a Roman Catholic candlelit procession in which the statue of San Gennaro is carried from its permanent home in the Church on Mulberry Street through the streets of Little Italy.
The Feast of San Gennaro opens every day at 11:30 AM and closes at 11:00 PM Sundays through Thursday’s and midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. It will feature free musical entertainment (every night from 7:00 to 9:30 pm), food demonstrations and lectures every afternoon between 2:00 and 5:00 pm on the Festival Stage (located at the corner of Grand and Mott Streets). Of course the inevitable questions is when is the cannoli-eating contest? Brave contestants will square off with mountains of Caffe Palermo cannoli on Friday, September 14th at 2:00 pm.
The Origin in Italy
Naples is an unusual city in Italy where art, culture, spirituality and superstition all mix together to create a unique atmosphere. If you go to Naples on September 19th you will find the city celebrating its patron saint. The feast of San Gennaro involves prayer, processions and celebrations, and is usually based around a program held in the Duomo of Naples. One of the most important events is linked to an emotional ritual, rich in hope and devotion – the liquefaction of the saint’s dried blood. On the feast day, the faithful gather to pray and follow specific rituals in the hopes of bringing about the miracle and change of the Saint’s blood. The miracle of liquefaction takes place inside the Duomo, when the substance in the cruets dissolves into a vivid red liquid. The event is celebrated on the first Sunday of May, then again on the 19th of September and also in December.
The Saint himself, Gennaro also known as Januarius I of Benevento, was Bishop of Benevento in the region of Campania. While no contemporary sources on his life are preserved, later sources and legends claim that he died during the Great Persecution which ended with Diocletian’s retirement in 305. Gennaro was born in Benevento to a wealthy family. At a young age of 15, he became local priest of his parish in Benevento and became Bishop of Naples when he was just 20. During the 1 ½ year-long persecution of Christians by Emperor Diocletian, he hid his fellow Christians and prevented them from being caught. Unfortunately, while visiting a priest in jail, he too was arrested. Condemned, he was to be thrown to wild bears in the Flavian Amphitheater at Pozzuoli, but the sentence was changed, due to fear of public disturbances. He was instead beheaded at the Solfatara crater near Pozzuoli.
According to tradition, the blood of the martyr was collected after his death by a woman, who stored it in two cruets. Neapolitans believe this annual liquefaction is essential to their city and its well-being. When it does not happen, tragedy and catastrophe are thought to be near. The first record of the liquefaction dates back to 1389. Disasters linked the ritual’s failure are the 1527 plague, which killed tens of thousands and the earthquake of 1980.
The social and cultural value of San Gennaro and its miracle was well understood by the Napoleonic army who, at the end of the 18th century conquered the city. The day after entering the city its leader, the general Championnet visited the Duomo to ask for San Gennaro’s blessing. Aware of the importance of the cult to Neapolitans, Napoleon and his leaders never forbid worship in the city, nor did they confiscate or destroy any religious icons or property (contrarily to their actions during other conquests).
In 2011, Naples had something extra to celebrate on the Saint’s feast day. On September 18th, the Napoli soccer team beat reigning champions A.C. Milan, in a spectacular show of passion. The following day 10,000 gathered in the rain at Piazza Plebiscito to honor the city and their sport heroes. A week later, Napoli won the Champions League game, seemingly blessed by the good omen of San Gennaro’s liquid blood.
The miracle of liquefaction has drawn great attention also from scientists and researchers. Catholic Neapolitans firmly believe the event they attend is unexplainable scientifically and it a gift of San Gennaro to his people. The Roman Catholic Church has firmly established its own view of the event. According to the Church, the liquefaction of the blood is not a miracle per se, but rather an amazing event considered prodigious by the religious local tradition, as the event has not been fully explained yet by the scientific community. We believe that is church-speak for “We don’t want to call it a miracle, but the faithful certainly know it to be the case.” There are theories, but overall the event remains shrouded in mystery prompting several superstitions and legends to sprout up over the years. The most common is associated with the lottery, with many Neapolitans betting on San Gennaro’s numbers. For those who are interested the numbers are 9, 15, 18, 53 and 55.