In a Sicilian town, there is a festival celebrating Saint John the Baptist. It lasts three days. On the first evening, it begins in the harbor with a theatric performance of fisherman subduing, then butchering (complete with lots of fake blood) a shirtless man acting as a swordfish. The next morning, there is a solemn mass. All attendees wear red. A statue of Saint John is kept in a closed compartment in the rectory where folks pray to it all year. After the mass, the statue of Saint John is released to the sound of church bells and carried through every street in the town on a red palanquin all day and into the evening. A throng of devotees follows. Gifts of jewelry are draped over the statue. In a short time, it is covered from head to toe with gold. Imagine, if you will, the holy visage, complete with the traditional camel hair robe to show St. John’s rugged outdoor lifestyle, but also draped in gold chains like a pious gansta. At the end of each day, the statue is escorted to the harbor where it has a front row seat to a dazzling fireworks display over the water.
My family visited the town during this festival when I was ten years old. As you can probably tell, I thought the whole thing was utterly bizarre. When the parade passed us by, my parents goaded me to kiss the statue’s feet for a photo op, like all of the other children were doing. A priest lifted me up so the feet would be in easy reach. There is a picture somewhere in my mom’s vacation albums of ten year old me, wearing a blue dress with tiny sunflowers all over, being held aloft by a priest to kiss the feet of a gilded idol. I don’t think I looked overly thrilled to be there. In fact, in that moment, I remember being terrified. Having seen Indiana Jones and the Charlton Heston version of Ten Commandments, I was pretty confident I was about to either get my face melted off or be struck by divine lightning. My parents naturally thought the whole thing was charming.
When I visited the town again during summer break in college, I invited a couple of friends along to attend the festival. To me, this was an academic exercise. You see, both were religious, one pursuing his masters in early Christian studies, the other was a Methodist who invited me on a mission trip later that summer. Both were classicists, like me, who knew the history of the early Catholic religion and how it sort of evolved from Roman tradition. I wanted them to experience this festival. At that point, I was interested in the commonalities between this modern festival and historic accounts from ancient Rome, when every town had its own patron god, with its own feast day, who would be celebrated in a similar manner. My friends saw the similarities too. I wanted to know if the whole thing would unnerve them, as it did me, or fascinate them. They were delighted, not disturbed. It seemed like more a touristy cultural experience to them, but maybe that’s because no one forced them to kiss St. John’s feet.
This festival is also celebrated in Galveston because the Galveston-Italian community all emigrated together from the Sicilian town in the early 1950’s. They brought Saint John with them. In Galveston, the tradition is honored in a smaller way. There is a smaller, slightly less ostentatious, St. John statute at the local Catholic church. The same families have been attending every year. It has the atmosphere of a hometown Fourth of July parade.
This weekend I attended the Galveston Saint John festival. My mom goes every year. I haven’t gone in ages, but I was humbled by the experience after so many years. I saw family I haven’t visited with in a very long time. They all got to meet my husband and comment on how tall I’ve gotten. Yeah, that long. After a mass and a short parade, we went to a banquet at the local Knights of Columbus Hall. One of the original women who brought the festival from Sicily gave a speech at the banquet. She talked about her devotion to Saint John and her gratefulness to him for delivering the community to Galveston in the aftermath of World War Two, when the small Sicilian town was severely impoverished. She talked about how proud she felt that the Galveston-Italian community has been able to come together for more than fifty years and keep this tradition alive.
After all this time, I felt ignorant for perceiving the original festival as so alien and somehow nefarious. Aside from just the weird religious aspect of it, I just don’t feel quite at home among people who are so devoted to anything. But my uneasiness is my own failing. The beauty of a community coming together this way, year after year, should not be disregarded so cynically.
I still don’t get the swordfish pantomime thing though. Like seriously, what the fuck is going on with that?