If you're new to Gloucester and Cape Ann, or didn't grow up in the area, one of the most storied Gloucester traditions may be a mystery to you. Fiesta, a mix of religious and community celebration, happens every year during the last week of June. From a parade, to a slapstick pole, to a carnival, Fiesta has it all!
St. Peter’s Fiesta began in 1927 when an Italian-American fishing captain by the name of Salvatore Favazza commissioned a statue of the patron saint of fisherman, St. Peter. As was the custom and tradition back in Sicily, families in Gloucester gathered to pray in front of the statue to ensure the safe return of their husbands and fathers while on fishing trips. This informal gathering soon spawned a procession on the Catholic feast day of St. Peter, June 29th.
As the heavily Catholic, Sicilian fisherman community in Gloucester grew and became more close-knit, the St. Peter's procession blossomed into a day-long day of devotion, and in 1931 the Fisherman's wives, tasked with the duty of planning the event, began to ask for their husband's help, as the event had grown exponentially. The fisherman called a meeting, and a committee formed - the interest in Fiesta was so great that from that day forward, Fiesta turned into a three-day festiva and eventually became the Wednesday-Sunday Fiesta we know and love today.
(St Peter's Parade, 1950's)
While Fiesta is now known for its boisterous entertainment - at times, appearing like spring break is upon us - the religious aspect of the festival is still closely interwoven into the celebration. The basis of the feast is to honor St. Peter, who has protected the fishermen from storms and danger throughout the year, and delivered the fisherman safely home to their families. Fishing is still a major component of Gloucester's culture, and a dangerous way to make a living. The feast honors this devotion to the patron saint of Fishermen, and is deeply spiritual and important to those of Sicilian descent who still hold their heritage and devotion to Catholic principles close to their hearts.
For days, and sometimes even weeks prior to the procession, local homes and community meeting places such as the Mothers of Grace club on lower Washington Street are decorated for Fiesta. Colorful arches flags, buntings, wreaths, and even branded Fiesta signs printed by local businesses are hung throughout downtown.
Sunday's religious ceremonies begin with the traditional outdoor mass at St. Peter's Square. Each year, a visiting Bishop or Cardinal presides over the mass, which is attended by hundreds of churchgoers. Immediately following the mass, the ensuing religious procession winds its way through the streets of Gloucester. Multiple floats are decorated with mainly religious themes, and many marching bands from the region participate, including Firefighters Pipe and Drum bands. Not only are there statues of saints as well as the Virgin Mary, but the parade's pinnacle is the statue of St. Peter, who is marched upon the shoulders of those who have been involved in Fiesta for decades. Cannons of red, white, and green confetti, made from tissue paper, are shot over the crowds and litter the streets. During the parade, volunteers collect dollar bills and in return give out roses. Young children often participate in the parade, and it's traditional for those at mass, in the parade, or participating in the feast to be dressed in "Fiesta Whites" - from head to toe.
When not being honored by a walk through the streets of Gloucester, the statue of St. Peter is housed in the large picture window at the St. Peter’s Club on Main St, where he looks out towards the harbor, as if he can protect the fisherman from danger from his perch.
At the end of the procession, the presiding Cardinal or Bishop is met at the oceanfront by boats large and small for the annual Blessing of the Fleet, which serves as protection for those who will be out at sea for the upcoming year.
(Statue of St. Peter being carried at the parade)
Outside of the grand, spiritual procession, Fiesta also encompasses many other traditional events. One of the most well-respected are the Seine Boat Races. Three boats, the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria, are each manned by twelve member crews - a helmsman, a coxswain, and ten rowers - who take turns racing each other. Starting at Pavilion Beach, each boat must row half a mile straight out to sea, make their way around a flag, and then row back as fast as they can. It's a grueling test of strength and physical fitness, and winning the race depends on intense concentration, as well as superior navigation. Saturday marks the elimination round of the races, where the top two finishers will get to race the reigning champion during Sunday's races. These races aren't just for men, as there are also teams of women and younger, junior racing teams.
The Seine Boat races have been a part of St. Peter's Fiesta since the 1930's. This type of boat was originally used by the fisherman to haul in the fish that were captured in their floating nets. The fish, as well as the boat, were loaded onto larger vessels. As the majority of Gloucester's fishing fleet stayed in port during Fiesta, the seine boats were made available for competitive racing between crews of local fishing fleets, and the tradition grew from there.
The Greasy Pole is probably the most well known part of Fiesta, drawing crowds of thousands of spectators that line Pavilion Beach, the Boulevard, as well as those on kayaks and smaller harbor boats, with spectators jostling for the best spot in the inner harbor to cheer on their favorites. Taking place on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday after the seine boat races, the Greasy Pole is a platform located about 80 yards off of Pavilion Beach, with a forty-five foot long telephone pole mounted horizontally sticking out over the harbor. Red, white, and green flags are nailed to a stick at the end of the pole, which is then heavily greased with many pounds of vegetable-based grease.
One by one contestants, who are quote often decked out in elaborate costumes and with the help of some liquid courage, take turns trying to reach the end of the pole to capture the flag before slipping on the grease and plummeting hilariously into the water. There are varied approaches to winning -while some contestants take a running leap and go full-bore until they fall or slip, some take it very slow, and methodically try to maintain balance without slipping. Neither method is particularly successful, and raucous cheers erupt from the crowd every time a participant slips and sails into the water below. While it's entertaining and slapstick to watch, injuries are common, ranging from bruised tailbones and scraped to broken limbs, although thankfully no major life-threatening injuries occur.
The first round is considered the courtesy round to give all the runners a chance at running the pole, and no one is allowed to capture the flag. Famously in 1979, one man grabbed the flag in the first round, breaking the Courtesy Round rule. Unfortunately, this angered longtime winner Anthony "Matza" Giambanco, who summarily punched the man, nailed the flag back to the pole, and the competition continued.
Once the first round is complete, the contest officially begins and each individual gets his chance to run the pole. The event usually takes two to four rounds for someone to win but sometimes it can go as long as six or seven rounds. Even if you aren't watching the greasy pole, the winning runner's celebration is so loud that those inside bars or miles away can still hear the crowd roar.
Once a contestant captures the flag he then swims to the beach with all the other contestants. The winner gets lifted onto to the shoulders of his fellow walkers and paraded around the town, celebrated by all, and in true Gloucester fashion, drinks for free for the entire evening.
Aside from these traditional events, Fiesta is also home to a carnival, a 5K race, nightly bandstand entertainment, and much more. It's an event you can't miss!
For a listing of events for the 2016 St Peter's Fiesta, visit their website.
And yes, there is an app for St. Peters Fiesta! https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/st.-peters-fiesta/id889940644?mt=8