The Festival of San Gennaro is not just important to Little Italy, it’s important to all of New York City — that’s what John Fratta, board director of Figli di San Gennaro, told International Business Times Wednesday during a phone interview. He discussed the origin of the feast, why we celebrate it and how he hopes the feast will continue to thrive In New York.

“It’s important to keep it alive,” Fratta said about the celebration. “It’s something our ancestors did when they came over here. It’s part of our heritage and culture.”

Even though it stretches 11 blocks now, the San Gennaro festival originally started as a block party in 1926. While some people think the festival centers on food, the celebration is held to honor San Gennaro, the patron saint and protector of Naples in Italy. More than anything, “it’s a religious festival,” Fratta said. “It’s very important to the community.”

San Gennaro was executed Sept. 19, 305 A.D. by order of Emperor Diocletian, who persecuted Christians in the 4th century. He wasn’t easy to kill. “They tried to poison him. They tried to burn him, but San Gennaro didn’t die until they chopped off head,” Fratta explained.

A woman named Eusebia collected his blood in two vials. Part of what makes the feast so special is that each year on Sept. 19, the blood liquefies. “He’s very important to the Neapolitan people,” Fratta said of San Gennaro. “We normally are notified [from Italy] when the blood liquefies.”

The liquefaction is a sign of buona fortuna, or good luck. Neopolitans pray to him like they do the Blessed Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ, Fratta added. 

San Gennaro 2 San Gennaro is the patron saint and protector of Naples, Italy. Photo: Courtesy of the Figli di San Gennaro

While religion is at the heart of the San Gennaro festival, another undeniable aspect is the food. This year, there will be a meatball eating contest, which will be hosted by “Who’s the Boss” star Tony Danza. 

“What’s an Italian festival without eating meatballs?” Fratta joked. “You gotta eat meatballs!”

The San Gennaro feast this year is being held in honor of John “Cha Cha” Ciarcia, who was once the unofficial mayor of Mulberry Street in the heart of Little Italy. “He loved San Gennaro,” Fratta said.

Many former residents return to Little Italy to celebrate the festival each year. “People who were raised here who come back, it’s like a reunion,” Fratta said. “And people who are dedicated to San Genaro come back.”

The San Gennaro festival faced criticism that it would die out soon, but that won’t happen under Fratta’s watch. He said he's “gotten with the 21st century” and is promoting it on social media.

He also wants to make it more kid friendly. Currently, there are carnival rides for kids, but Fratta has bigger plans. Next year, he hopes to get the cable network Nickelodeon involved. 

“We’re trying to bring back the families to the San Gennaro festival. We lost that over the years,” he said. “When I was a kid, everyone came with their families.”

Ultimately, he wants to attract a new crowd. “We’re trying to reinvent ourselves,” Fratta said. “We’re trying to attract the younger people and help them see the importance of honering San Gennaro.”

The festival begins Thursday and ends Sunday, Sept. 25. Click here for the full schedule. 

San Gennaro 1 The Feast of San Gennaro originally started in 1926 and was only one block long. Now, it stretches 11 blocks. Photo: Courtesy of the Figli di San Gennaro

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