The Feast of San Gennaro, patron saint and protector of Naples, is celebrated every year on September 19 throughout the world. In Naples itself it is primarily a religious festival in which faith and superstition merge in anticipation of the “miracle of liquefaction.” According to legend, the blood of the Christian martyr, Saint Gennaro, was collected after his decapitation in 305 d.C. and is now preserved in 2 vials in a safe with two locks in the Duomo of Naples. On September 19, the vials are brought to the altar and welcomed by the devoted with prayers, shouts of jubilation and joy, hugs and applause. The liquefaction in a short time is considered a good omen for the future; a delay or failure is considered a bad sign.* While September 19 is the primary and most important date, the event is replicated on December 16 and the first Sunday in May, the feast date of the transfer of his relics.
In September 1926, newly arrived immigrants from Naples congregated along Mulberry Street in the Little Italy neighborhood of New York City. They decided to continue the tradition that they had followed in Italy to celebrate the day when Saint Gennaro was martyred. Immigrant families erected a small chapel to house the image of their patron Saint. They invited all to participate and to pin an offering to the ribbon streamers that were hung from the statue. The money was then distributed to the poor in the neighborhood.
Little Italy in New York City used to span from Canal Street and the Bowery to Lafayette Street. Sicilians lived on Elizabeth Street; Neapolitans, Calabresi and Sicilians lived on Mott Street. Mulberry Street also had a mix but was primarily Neapolitan. They all lived together and shared recipes and traditions. As the twentieth century evolved, the children moved away and Little Italy became smaller and smaller. Today, only a few restaurants and shops remain.
However, over the twentieth century, the Feast of San Gennaro expanded from a one-day event into an 11-day street fair. For years it has been an annual celebration of food and drink, music and games, and was frequented by the faithful and tourists alike. It attracts more than one million people. Families that grew up in Little Italy returned for the annual celebrations. Centered on Mulberry Street, which is closed to traffic, the festival features sausages and zeppole, and about 200 street vendors. This year (2021) is the 95th annual Feast of San Gennaro, which was dedicated to honoring New York City’s first responders on 9-11-2001. Among the scheduled events are a cannolo eating competition, a zeppole (donut) eating competition, and a pizza eating competition. Perhaps the Enrico Caruso opera event is a bit more elegant.
On the religious side, the Grand Procession is held after a celebratory Mass at the Church of the Most Precious Blood on September 19. This is a candlelit procession in which the statue of San Gennaro is carried from its permanent home in the Most Precious Blood Church through the streets of Little Italy.
The continued growth of the Feast over the past ten years enabled it to donate more than $1.8 million to worthy causes in all five boroughs of New York and the tri-state area to help the needy and the young. No other public festival donates more money to charity than does the Feast of San Gennaro.
*Scientists say the substance inside the sealed vials in Naples appears to be dried blood but cannot explain why it sometimes turns into liquid and sometimes does not.