The Feast of San Gennaro enters its 90th year on Sept. 15 both proud of its history, and knowing it has to do more to draw in younger New Yorkers.
“My great-grandfather was one of the founders,” says John Fratta, board director of Figli di San Gennaro, the nonprofit that organizes the festival. “It started back then as a block party. They used to have a contest for who could decorate their fire escape better.”
Though it’s now grown into an 11-day raucous block party that spans 11 blocks, at heart the Feast of San Gennaro remains a religious festival. The solemn processional on Sept. 19 brings the statue of San Gennaro from the Shrine Church of the Most Precious Blood into the streets. The fourth-century Bishop Januarius was a particularly resilient one, surviving being burned and poisoned before Emperor Diocletian had him beheaded. A woman named Eusebia managed to save some of his blood, which miraculously liquefies on Sept. 19 and the first Sunday in May.
And also, it seems, in the presence of another worthy Catholic. “This year, we were excited because when Pope Francis went to the cathedral [in Naples], when he went to pick up the vials, the blood liquefied,” Fratta says.
The celebration begins and ends with an especially festive air — on the 17th, even the statue of San Gennaro rides on one of floats parading through Little Italy (starting in the afternoon on Grand Street between Mott and Mulberry) — that carries through Sept. 25 with food vendors, musicians, games and more all set up in the streets.
Though the feast has grown to attract over a million people not just from New York but also abroad, modern life has taken its toll. Gone is the grease pole climbing contest (insurance reasons) and the spinning wheel from the carnival games (gambling). Rising rents are hurting businesses, and a younger, less religious generation is often missing from the festivities.
They can work to change at least that, Fratta says. This year, organizers have added a live webcast of the party in Naples, Italy, opened the Ferrara Bakery cannoli eating contest to regular eaters as opposed to professional ones (Sept. 16, register by calling 212-764-6300) and debuting a meatball-eating contest (Sept. 26, Tony Danza will judge).
“In the beginning, they said in 10 years, the feast will be gone, in 20 years the feast will be done,” Fratta says. “It changed, like everything else in New York, but it’s still something we look forward to. We’re doing a lot of stuff from now until 100.”