An Annual New York Tradition – The Feast of San Gennaro

Yesterday, Roberto and I partook in an annual New York Tradition – the Little Italy Feast of San Gennaro.  Today is the last day of the Feast, but don’t worry if you missed it,  it’s bound to be back next year.  Something to look forward to…

Back in the day, when America still welcomed immigrants, and Lady Liberty still had open arms in New York Harbor, there was quite an influx of Italians to the United States.  Living conditions in the native homeland were awful, especially for those in the South – no jobs, bad farmland, natural disasters and oppression by the richer Northern Italians, despite having the same religion and ethnicity.  Many of these folks found their way to North and South America, and at the turn of the 20th century, Little Italy in New York’s Lower East Side/SoHo area was a dirty slum packed with many of them.  It is that period in time that has imparted the most lasting ethnic mark on the area.

Nowadays, according to the census, only about 8% of the population of the neighborhood are Italian, which is about the same as most of the rest of New York City.  Chinatown has encroached on its boundaries and Italian-Americans have integrated themselves throughout other neighborhoods of the city, including among Germans, Irish and Polish.  They moved to Queens, Brooklyn the Bronx and Long Island (and of course, Jersey and Staten Island too).  But the shrunken old Little Italy neighborhood remains full of many Italian restaurants and shops and is a popular local and foreign tourist attraction, year round.

The Feast of San Gennaro, according to Wikipedia was originally a one-day religious commemoration, which began in September 1926, when newly arrived immigrants from Naples congregated along Mulberry Street, to continue the tradition they had followed in Italy to celebrate San Gennaro, the Patron Saint of Naples. San Gennaro’s feast day (who is also known as Januarius) is September 19 in the liturgical calendar of the Roman Catholic Church.  Apparently, Januarius was a Catholic priest in the region that helped save Christians from persecution by Emperor Diocletian (some time around 305 A.D.) by hiding them and preventing them from being caught.  He was later arrested and supposedly beheaded or possibly thrown to wild bears.

Then there was a miracle regarding his blood.  A small vial of his coagulated blood is kept in a vault (a relic). Tri-annually, the blood vial is brought out by the clergy of Naples and examined and it turns back to liquid, which is considered the miracle.  It seems that the couple of times they took the blood vial out and the blood stayed solid, horrible tragedy befell Naples, like the 1980 earthquake.  But most years, it liquifies and things are just fine.  Apparently, there are a few blood miracles in the general region of Campagna.

My family are not from Naples, but further south at the toe of the boot, in Calabria.  They immigrated to the U.S. in the 1960s, not the 1910s.  Once in a while my parents will harken back to their trans-Atlantic journey on the ship Michelangelo as they voyaged to come and join my mother’s father and married sister here in New York.  Once here, they settled in Queens, which also had a large Italian community.  Many of the traditions of our family are probably very similar to those of Neapolitan American families.

The festival itself draws big crowds and is a smorgasbord of Italian-American favorites, like Sausage and Peppers, Braciole, Zepole, Cannoli, Sfogliatele and Torrone to name a few.  Below are some photos from our fun afternoon there yesterday…

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You can get a sense of the crowded street here, and the garlands overhead that mark the route of the feast.

The local restaurants set up sidewalk service - seen on the right. As the crowds stroll by, they can play some carnival games, like on the left.

The local restaurants set up sidewalk service – seen on the right. As the crowds stroll by, they can play some carnival games, like on the left.

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Cannoli!! Notice the giant cannoli on the counter (for show) and the case full of the delicious traditional pasty.

More cannolis...these are essentially a tube shaped cookie shell filled with a cream, often a ricotta sweet cream. There are different variations.

More cannolis…these are essentially a tube shaped cookie shell filled with a cream, often a ricotta sweet cream. There are different variations.

More cookies – whoopi pies….

One of my favorite treats – white torrone. This is a delicious chewy nougat. It can be quite hard and glassy so watch your teeth! My mom used to make this at Christmas time. It is really delicious, but a bit laborious to make.

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The statue of the patron Saint, San Gennaro. They have a processional at scheduled times where they carry the statue along the feast route. Upon approaching the statue, which is usually found in front of the Most Precious Blood Sanctuary, you are welcomed to leave a donation in honor of the saint.
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Italian flag, American flag and – Sausage flag….

Sausage and peppers are definitely one of the favorite meals of the feast.

Sausage and peppers are definitely one of the favorite meals of the feast.

The making of a sausage and pepper sandwich…

Now just in case you were saying to yourself “This all looks familiar, I think I’ve seen it before” you have; you aren’t crazy.  Re-watch this clip from the legendary film Godfather Part 2 when young man Vito Corleone assassinates Don Fanucci to refresh your memory: