Around the turn of the 1900s, Italian immigrants left Italy in search of a better life for their families. During this time, Southern Italy was a very desperate place holding little to no promise of a bright future for the many starving and hungry families. Many had no other choice but to pack up their belongings and take a chance on moving to the promise of the ‘New World’ in particular, the neighborhood of Harlem, in New York City.
Southern Italians, with a moderate number of Northern Italians, soon predominated East Harlem, especially in the area east of Lexington Avenue between 96th and 116th Streets and east of Madison Avenue between 116th and 125th Streets, with each street featuring people from different regions of Italy. The neighborhood became known as "Italian Harlem." The Italian American hub of Manhattan; it was the first part of Manhattan to be referred to as "Little Italy."
Many families from the town of Brusciano, Italy migrated to East Harlem to start new with other families and friends that came before them. Although these immigrants brought little with them on their 30-day-long voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, in the tight confines of the boat, what they did carry with them were their beloved traditions. For the people of Brusciano, this included their yearly Dance of the Giglio festival in honor of Sant’ Antonio. The Giglio (lily in Italian) is an 80-foot-tall, three-ton statue which is carried and danced through the streets of East Harlem by over 100 faithful members of the society.
It was around this time that the Italian immigrants of East 106th Street in East Harlem decided to initiate their beloved tradition by building a Giglio and dancing it in the ‘New World’. The first Giglio Feast on 106th street in East Harlem started approximately in 1908. Giocchino Vivolo is credited for being the first Capo Paranza on 106th Street. He along with his brother Rocco Vivolo were members of the Bruscianese Society and were influential in bringing this tradition to East Harlem from Brusciano, Italy. The Festival on 106th Street grew for many years becoming one of the largest street fairs in America and remained that way until 1955. Then, in 1957, the festival moved a few blocks uptown to 108th Street, where the Dance of the Giglio continued until 1971.
After a 29-year hiatus, the Dance of the Giglio returned to East Harlem in 2000 as a Cooperative
Feast with the Church of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. The feast is now located on Pleasant Avenue
between on 114th street and 116th street. The Festival enjoyed several great years dancing the Giglio during the annual Feast of the Our Lady of Mt Carmel festival that takes place each year on July 16, the feast date of the Madonna. For the 2006 feast, it was decided to hold the Dance of the Giglio Festival separate from the annual Our Lady of Mt Carmel feast. The decision to move the Dancing of the Giglio dates was made in order to relieve the strain on the Giglio community.
The East Harlem Giglio feast is held annually on the second weekend of August on Pleasant Avenue, drawing thousands of visitors, former residents and tourists from around the world. The 3 ton Giglio statue is danced under the shoulders of over 100 faithful on the second Sunday of August.