If you believe recent local media tabloids (CH2, Hilton Head Monthly, and Pink), you might think an Old World invasion was upon us here in the LowCountry. And you’d be right. On September 19, 2015, the Italian American Club of Hilton Head Island will be hosting its Sixth Annual Italian Heritage Festival Honoring the Feast of San Gennaro.
“Come one, come all, and don’t fuggetaboutit,” reads one billboard on rte. 170 going east from Savannah to Hilton Head. Which is Italian for, “remember to bring the escarole”, in case you were wondering. And escarole, of course, is American-Italian for Il denaro, so you can pay $6.00 for your ticket, and buy local Italian-inspired handmade gifts and crafts, raffle tickets, bid on silent auction items, play festival games like bocce, and Drown the Clown (dunk-tank action), and of course, eat and drink like a respectable Italian. Which may require a little extra Il denaro, as our Mediterrannean neighbors really put the ‘ate’ in satiate, a long time ago, when Rome reigned supreme.
It was during those reigning days of yore that the legend of San Gennaro came about, in whose name the feast began all over the world, but most auspiciously on New York’s Mulberry Street during the early turn of last century when a vast number of Italian immigrants came to our shores. The easiest way to understand the devotion to this martyred priest is to rent the Godfather Part II, and/or Mean Streets, imbibe a few sips of cheap chianti, and notice how much carnage and thievery ensures while parade goers dance and chant down the street next to the San Gennaro effigy and Madonna (the Virgin, not the singer) floats.
Now, if you research this history (ie. Google, San Gennaro and click on the Wikipedia link), you will find an interesting – if not disturbing – to us plebeians of non-Catholic backgrounds – bit of detail regarding the legacy of St. Januarius (the latin form of San Gennaro); his fame is based on the “blood miracle” as depicted in one of his relics.
(You may have noted so far, that punctuating this tale is challenging, so bear with me.)
Yes, to review for the pleibs, Catholic tradition places a premium on the body parts of dead martyrs and saints. The remains are placed in sealed glass boxes known as reliquaries, and put on display to the public (under heavy guard), usually in the home church of the late saint, or some other equally revered, ancient, stone edifice, that visitors often kiss, and place coins in the accompanying alms vessel.
Worshippers sometimes pray to the saint, or in the saint’s name, which is also a curious sidebar, given that the saint usually died a gruesome death, involving scourging, lion-baiting, burning, stretching on a rack, hanging, and beheading. And not necessarily in that order. For what, are people praying to these tortured souls? “In the name of St. Joan of Arc, when it’s my time to go, just take a little off the sides around the ears!”
Yes, I know, digressing.
A young priest, St. Januarius of Benevento, Italy, was beheaded for his Christian beliefs in 305 AD. According to Catholic folklore, his execution occurred after extended torture, flogging, flaying, gnashing of teeth, and even attempted cremation (it is said he walked out of the incinerator, unscathed). Due to his apparent stranglehold on the physical world, his ultimate demise was regarded as somewhat of a triumph by the petrified Christians of the time, who were used to living in fear for their lives under pagan rule.
As was popular testimony to a revered person of the cloth during those days, body parts of the deceased were spirited away by various and sundry of the Christian flock, and stored in vaults for safe-keeping, in case the martyred soul were to return from heaven for his/her… ahem, personal effects. In the interim, these “relics” became symbols of Christian suffering and courage, and pilgrims began to make their way across the seas to pay homage to the interred skeletal remains of said martyrs.
Stay with me here patient reader, because the punchline is really worthwhile. As noted above, after the execution of St. Januarius, members of the Flock came from all over Italy and spirited away his remains. Okay. You got that. The head stayed in Naples (where San Gennaro is, to this day, the principal patron saint), the body went to his birthplace, Benevento (where it resides in a Chapel, waiting to be reunited with the head – inter-Vatican politics prevent me from elaborating further on this anatomical/spiritual conflict), and his blood was poured into two delicate glass vials by a devout Catholic woman, so-named Eusebia, who boosted the metaphoric ‘wine’ of the saint, and kept it hidden in a vault.
Fast-forward (as fast as the dogged centuries can go), to 1389, when, upon the vials being displayed on the anniversary of San Gennaro’s death, it was noticed by some Vatican dignitaries to ‘liquefy’, from its coagulated state.
What does this mean?
Well, apparently, this meant a lot to the Roman Catholics of the Middle Ages, who knew somehow, that scientifically, nine-hundred-year-old coagulated blood could not liquefy on its own without some divine intervention.
So began the canonization process for the martyred priest Januarius, now known as San Gennaro. And there’s more to the story. (“More to this strange tale?” You’re probably thinking, so go take a break and get an espresso to cap off the ending of this yarn).
Since the initial liquefaction and re-coagulation of the blood from the veins of this ancient, revered priest, Januarius, the phenomenon has re-occurred. Yes. Not once, not twice, but many times throughout the following centuries, the blood liquefaction miracle re-occurs to the delight of on-lookers, pilgrims, cardinals, bishops, AND popes, at various dates on the Roman calendar year (notice all of this trivia leads us back to the Romans; like the roads).
All this to say, that THIS particular year of Our Lord, Two Thousand and Fifteen, the next scheduled blood liquefaction miracle will occur on September 19. (Hold your breath…) THE EXACT DATE OF THE HILTON HEAD ITALIAN HERITAGE FESTIVAL HONORING THE FEAST OF SAN GENNARO AT THE COASTAL DISCOVERY MUSEUM AT HISTORIC HONEY HORN! (Exhale, now and ponder).
Where will you be, to commemorate this legendary saint? Staring at the ancient vials of blood in Italy, or laughing, eating pasta, drinking wine, playing bocce, and listening to live entertainment from Larry Tannelli, on Hilton Head Island?
I think, on hindsight, San Gennaro would approve of our festivities. Especially, knowing that proceeds from this event go towards local charities and scholarship funds. So, if you’re in the LowCountry neighborhood, around the weekend of September 19, 2015, drop by The Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn and, “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” (From the first, Godfather, movie).
WHAT: Sixth Annual Italian Heritage Festival
WHEN: 11 am – 4 pm, Saturday, September 19, 2015
COST: $6.00/person. Parking – free, Advance tickets online: http://iachh.org/festival.html
CONTACT: Paul Caimano, Festival Chair: firstname.lastname@example.org, or (412) 897- 1148
As Il Presidente says, “Ciao, for now!”