Wednesday, June 24, 2009

St. Peter's Fiesta

Despite the never-ending rain and drizzle that's been hugging the coastline for weeks, the city of Gloucester is not about to let that stop the opening ceremony of the most important "holiday" of the year—St. Peter's Fiesta.

How can I describe Fiesta? As someone who grew up in Gloucester, the annual five-day city-wide "party" seems normal, but whenever I invite people to join me for Fiesta and I tell them we'll go watch the greasy pole (a contest in which a bunch of Italian men dress up in drag and slide across a grease-covered pole suspended horizontally in the middle of the harbor attempting to grab the Italian flag stuck to the end of it), and on the last night we can march in the closing procession where people chant "Viva San Pietro!" (those who don't understand what to say chant "Eat a potato!")—my friends look at me like I'm barking mad. So I learned Fiesta isn't "normal" to most Americans.

Gloucester, Mass. a famous fishing port, has a large Italian population. When the Sicilian families settled here, earning their livelihood as fishermen, they brought along their beliefs and customs—including the one to pay homage to the patron saint of fishermen (St. Peter). This has evolved into the St. Peter's Fiesta. You can read more about the history at

Probably the most amazing part of Fiesta is its ability to bring the entire city of Gloucester back for a reunion. Even if you have no Italian heritage (or something like 2% like myself), having grown up in Gloucester is enough of an excuse to come back and reunite with your entire hometown. It's a kind of pilgrimage. My sister, a die-hard Fiesta fan, comes back from California every year. In her own words: "I've missed birthdays, weddings and funerals, but I'll NEVER miss Fiesta!" That might be Fiesta loyalty to the extreme, but it is the one time you can count on seeing 99% of your friends (and enemies) in the same place, at the same time. And let me tell you, there is something very odd about going into a bar and seeing your entire middle school class there. A few years ago I walked into a downtown bar and bumped into a kid who was a troublemaker in my 7th grade class. The teachers used to sit him next to me so I'd be a "good influence." I hadn't seen him in about eight years and he was drunk as a skunk, but a look of recognition flashed across his face and he hollered, "Hey! You used to help me with spelling!" Just the sort of thing I like to have announced in a bar. For better or worse, Fiesta never forgets you.

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