Grasping at straws

June 22, 2009



You have to see this to appreciate it: Men of Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish in Williamsburg dancing through the streets with a 65-foot-high, three-ton tower on their shoulders. It’s such an exquisite demonstration of — well, I’m not quite sure what it demonstrates — that it would be sacreligious to question it. Like Jerry Lewis’s career and the popularity of sushi, it just is.

The occasion is a belated celebration of the feast of San Paolino. The feast day is today, but the dance of the giglio will take place on July 12 during the parish’s annual street fair.

My attention was attracted to this, of course, because of the name of the saint. On an English church calendar, one finds him listed as St. Paulinus of Nola. His full name, rendered in Latin, was Pontius Meropius Anicius Paulinus. The dance of the giglio is a tradition that was imported to Brooklyn and a few other spots in these United States from Nola, the Italian city where Paolino was bishop in the fifth century. Although his feast is celebrated with sausage and peppers and zeppoli, he wasn’t Italian. This is part of a pattern in which one national group attaches itself to a saint who actually is from somewhere else: St Anthony of Padua from Portugal, St Nicholas of Bari from what is now Turkey, St Patrick from Britain, for example.

Paolino, or Paulinus, was born in Bordeaux. He was highly bred and wealthy and he had political power, but he and his wife put all that aside for religious life. Paolino became very influential in the church and was closely associated with St. Jerome and St. Augustine, among others, and his poetry is still highly regarded and, in fact, is the subject of a current book.



At one point, before he entered religious life, Paolino was Roman governor of Campagna, which is not far from where my family lives. However, I must confess that my connection to him is tenuous – what with him being French and celibate and all. But I take what I can get and throw his name around whenever I get the chance.

The giglio, incidentally, is a tower covered with paper lilies – hence the Italian term giglio — with a statue of the saint perched on top. The tower rests on a platform on which a small band is seated, and the men of the parish carry this whole assembly on their shoulders.

Although I have to admit, when challenged, that San Paolino and I probably have nothing to do with each other beyond our common baptism, I still feel I have made some progress.



After all, when I was a kid and hadn’t yet heard of the saint from Nola, I clung to a clumsy heavyweight named Paolino Uzcudun, whose claim to fame was that his title fight with Primo Carnera represented the greatest combined weight ever in a championship bout.


120px-No_Left_Turn.svgOne of my favorite encounters with the unique Italian mentality involved a police officer who was trying to give me driving directions to the Piazza di Venezia in Rome. He repeated the directions several times, but each time I was stumped when he said, “You’ll see a sign that says ‘don’t turn left.’ Turn left.’ ” Finally, he became frustrated with me and told me to follow him with my car while he walked me through the first part of the trip. At the end of a narrow street – an alley, really – he turned toward the car and held up both hands. He walked over to the driver’s widow, pointed at the universal symbol displayed on the street corner, and asked, “Si vede il segno che significa non girare a sinistra?” Yes, I said, I could see the sign that meant “don’t turn left.” “Beh!” he said. “Svoltare a sinistra!!” 


The Christian Science Monitor has interesting reviews of several books and a web site that explore various aspects of the signs that tell us where we should or can or should not or cannot go. It’s at this link: