San Gennaro Festival

San Gennaro Festival

Type of Holiday: Religious (Christian)
Date of Observation: Last two weeks of September
Where Celebrated: Little Italy, New York City
Symbols and Customs: Church Services, Fundraising, Procession, Street Fair
Colors: The San Genarro Festival area is usually festooned with decorations in green, white, and red, which are the colors of the Italian flag. ORIGINS

San Gennaro is a Christian festival that honors the patron saint of Naples, Italy. The word Christian refers to a follower of Christ. Christ is a title derived from the Greek word meaning Messiah or Anointed One. The Christ of Christianity is Jesus of Nazareth, a man born between 7 and 4 B . C . E . in the region of Palestine. According to Christian teaching, Jesus was killed by Roman authorities using a form of execution called crucifixion (a term meaning he was nailed to a cross and hung from it until he died) in about the year 30 C . E . After his death, he rose back to life. His death and resurrection provide a way by which people can be reconciled with God. In remembrance of Jesus' death and resurrection, the cross serves as a fundamental symbol in Christianity.

With nearly two billion believers in countries around the globe, Christianity is the largest of the world's religions. There is no one central authority for all of Christianity. The pope (the bishop of Rome) is the authority for the Roman Catholic Church, but other sects look to other authorities. Orthodox communities look to patriarchs and emphasize doctrinal agreement and traditional practice. Protestant communities focus on individual conscience. The Roman Catholic and Protestant churches are often referred to as the Western Church, while the Orthodox churches may also be called the Eastern Church. All three main branches of Christianity acknowledge the authority of Christian scriptures, a compilation of writings assembled into a document called the Bible. Methods of biblical interpretation vary among the different Christian sects.

San Gennaro, or St. Januarius, a fourth-century bishop of Benevento, is the patron saint of Naples, Italy. According to legend, he survived being thrown into a fiery furnace and then a den of wild beasts, but was eventually beheaded during the reign of Diocletian. His body was brought to Naples, along with two vials containing some of his blood. The congealed blood, preserved since that time in the Cathedral of San Gennaro in Naples, is believed to liquefy on the anniversary of his death each year-an event that has drawn crowds to Naples since 1389. The mystery of San Gennaro's blood is regarded by the faithful as a miracle.

Each year in Naples, San Gennaro Day is observed on September 19 with an elaborate ceremony. Statues of various saints and other religious artifacts are carried in a procession that winds through the streets to the cathedral. The highlights of this procession are two silver reliquaries. One, in the shape of a bust of San Gennaro, is believed to contain the head of the saint. The second is a smaller square container with glass sides enclosing the two ancient vials of blood. Once inside the cathedral, the two reliquaries are placed on the altar. Traditional prayers are recited amidst an atmosphere of increasing urgency and fervent pleas for the miracle to occur. At the point when the officiant declares that the blood has liquefied, the faithful erupt in wild, enthusiastic cheering and the cathedral's bells ring to signal the miraculous event. The miracle is said to occur consistently almost every year, with documented accounts dating back to the twelfth century.

U.S. observances of San Gennaro Day began in New York City in 1926 as an informal community celebration organized by recent Italian immigrants who had settled in the Little Italy district of Manhattan. Originally held as a one-day neighborhood block party, the event has grown over the years into an eleven-day street fair that is attended by some two million people annually. The San Gennaro Festival is now billed as the largest and longest-running religious street festival in New York City.

The festival is held in Little Italy during the last two weeks of September, with most of the religious ceremonies occurring on September 19. Special church services are held on that day, including a procession in which a statue of San Gennaro is carried through the streets.

The custom of celebrating Italian-American culture by holding a San Gennaro Festival has recently begun to spread to other U.S. cities. San Genarro Festivals are now also held at various times of the year in Las Vegas, Nevada; Los Angeles, California; and Reston, Virginia.


Church Services

A special celebratory mass is offered in honor of San Gennaro on September 19. The mass is usually held in the afternoon of that day at the Most Precious Blood Church in Little Italy in New York City.


One of the primary purposes of the San Gennaro Festival street fair is to raise money for charitable causes. In New York City, the festival has donated millions of dollars to benefit the community over the years.


A procession is held in Little Italy on the evening of September 19 immediately after church services. The statue of San Gennaro is taken from Most Precious Blood Church, which houses the national shrine of San Gennaro, and carried through the festival in emulation of the ceremonies held in Naples. A second procession to close the festival usually takes place on the last Saturday or Sunday of September in the afternoon.

Street Fair

During the San Gennaro Festival, a carnival atmosphere prevails throughout Little Italy. Diversions include free entertainment, games, contests, and vendors selling various Italian foods and desserts. The streets are decorated with red, white, and green banners and Italian flags.


Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Thurston, Herbert. "St. Januarius." In Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910.


San Gennaro Festival, Little Italy District of New York City

San Gennaro Festival, Las Vegas, Nevada

San Gennaro Festival, Los Angeles, California

San Gennaro Festival, Reston, Virginia
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009
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