San Gennaro Festival (Part 1) : Blood and Sideshows

Every year for the past 80 years, Mulberry Street in Little Italy becomes a wacky religious carnival. Why the San Gennaro Festival — with its mixture of saintly reliquary, frozen daquaris, freak shows and clowns — isn’t considered profane and condemned by the Catholic Church is a mystery to me. All I know is that if you can brave the crowds, San Gennaro is one of the most festive and delicious events in New York City.

Many native New Yorkers cringe at the thought of San Gennaro; admittedly, it’s loud, it’s tacky and most of all it’s packed. It can take up to 45 minutes just to traverse those eight blocks of Mulberry, from Houston to Canal. Yet, when I can muster up the patience, I’ve always had a soft spot for the festival, and its my yearly excuse to indulge in fried foods, sugary frozen cocktails and, oh yes, the cannolis.

The festival bills itself as a celebration of Italian-American culture, but it’s clear early on that it’s really about certain perceived notions. What’s practically obscured is the fact that this merry street party has at its heart a solemn religious meaning, which began in an Italian volcano hundreds of years ago.

Saint Januarius, whom the festival celebrates, might have been right at home among the cast of “Heroes”. A Christian bishop in the time of pre-Constantine Rome (305 AD), he risked his life to visit some captured Christians held in Solfatara, a sulfuric volcano crater nearby Naples. Januarius was himself captured, tortured, thrown into a furnace where he survived, and finally beheaded. As the sufferings of Roman Catholic saints go, that’s pretty standard.

What makes him especially notable — and for that matter, the patron saint of Naples — is that his samples of his blood are brought forth during the feast in his honor and the 1,700 year old artifact reportedly re-liquifys in the hands of priests.

Little Italy’s 80-year-old celebration is merely an extension of the Naples event, brought over by Italian immigrants. The festival is centered at the Church of the Most Precious Blood, where the national shrine to Januarius (Gennaro) is housed, in all its gaudy glory. (More about this remarkable church in tomorrow’s blog entry). A statue of San Gennaro is paraded through the streets on Saturday, to mingle with revelers, the zeppole and the carnival rides.

Some of the things the statue of San Gennaro will pass on his way through the streets of wild Little Italy —

San Gennaro will have the opportunity to deliver religious guidance to the Snake Girl:

And give hope to the World’s Smallest Woman:

There’s plenty of cannolis to go around, although the cannoli eating contest took place last Saturday.
Check here for pictures if you really want to see what that looked like:

I hope San Gennaro isn’t the jealous type. The most popular event at the festival wasn’t anything going on at Most Precious Blood, but rather four blocks away, at Drown the Clown. A rude, insulting clown sat on a platform mocking the crowd, and for five dollars, you could make him shut up by throwing a ball and sinking him into the pool below. There were at least 150 people standing around and celebrating as this fellow was repeatedly thrown into the water.

And of course if he prefers to pick up some religious themed souvenirs, there’s plenty along the way:

Or maybe something for baby Jesus:

Tomorrow: I take you inside and through the history of possibly one of the weirdest churches in the United States, the Most Precious Blood. I’ll spoil this now – it has instantly entered my Top Ten Favorite Buildings Of New York City …. though maybe not for reasons you might expect.

FYI, the current organizers of the event, Figli di San Gennaro, clearly spell the name with 2 n’s, although I believe the actual saint’s Italian name is spelled with one n – Genaro – and the two spellings are occasionally used interchangably, especially in festivals outside New York.