Thursday, May 14, 2009
St. Sebastian Festival Begins Tomorrow
St. Sebastian Church is, essentially, in my back yard. As such, I get a 24/7 perspective on the annual St. Sebastian Festival which begins Friday.
For my five year olds, the festival is a bit of magic coming to the neighborhood.
I like the festival because traffic is closed down for a few days on my block of Pearl Street, and I always enjoy the run of the Nuri. And it's a real honest-to-god (no pun intended), unique regional festival.
The festival revolves around a devotional to St. Sebastian, a 4th century Christian martyr and a Roman legionnaire who turned his back on the emperor Diocletian. Diocletian ordered Sebastian bound and staked in a field where he became the target of Roman archers. His body was filled with so many arrows that he resembled a pincushion. But he survived, only to cure a girl of her blindness, and to harangue Diocletian as he passed by. The emperor ordered Sebastian beaten to death and his body disposed of in a privy. Hence, Sebastian is known as a saint who was martyred twice.
While Sebastian's official saint day is in December, the traditional celebration of his sainthood is celebrated in Melilli, Italy in Nay, as it is here in Middletown. The original Italian celebration is a bit more elaborate with significant fireworks, dedicated supplicants bearing a likeness of Sebastian through the streets, and parents offering their naked babies to the likeness to prevent illness (Sebastian's spirit was thought to have the power to ward off the plague). And a nighttime barefoot run through the streets. And even the Sicilian celebration is toned down from the original.
In the original, a miraculous simulacrum of Sebastian was approached by naked (nuri) supplicants who modeled themselves after the images of the martyred Sebastian, who was often depicted naked or nearly naked. As the years went by, the nakedness was covered by red sashes (symbolizing Sebastian's blood), over white outfits for men and women.
Here in Middletown, there's a modest, three-day carnival with rides, game of chance booths and lots of locally-produced Italian food. The carnival is standard fare, but the live and recorded Italian music, and the quantities of Italian food, make it special.
On Sunday, the "nuri run", in which men, women and children dressed in white with red sashes, march barefoot (or with white sox) down Main Street, and then run up the Washington Street hill to the church, flowers in hand, shouting "Primu diu ee Samastianu." While the nuri draws a crowd, one can only imagine the mob that would assemble if the run still occured naked.
The nuri then enter the church, still shouting, and offering their bouquets to the icon. Then with an assist from an Italian brass band, and a few firecrackers, the icon is carried down the steps and through the streets.
Only then, does the ferris wheel begin to spin again, and does Dean Martin replace sacred prayers over the PA.
The rides and booths were dropped off Tuesday, and assembled Wednesday (this year there's a pirate theme going on with a swinging boat ride and a pirate funhouse, along with one centrigual ride, and three kiddie spinners). This morning I noticed city public works trucks dropping off picnic tables and bleachers to be set up next to the portable stage which will block the end of my street.
The festival carnival begins at 5 PM Friday, and the run of the nuri is scheduled for around noon on Sunday.