Mt. Carmel Week: Fond memories of festivals past
When I was a kid, “The Carnival” was the biggest event of the year. In those days, air travel was more expensive than it is now, so not too many people were able to travel to Disney World (which didn’t exist until 1971). For whatever reasons, in the 1960s and well into the 70s, there just wasn’t much going on in town in the summer (or winter). The carnival was it.
I was away from town doing various things and living in various places from 1977 till 2002, but if I was in the country I would try to return for two events that framed the year: the Mount Carmel Festival and the Hammonton/St. Joe Thanksgiv-ing Day football game. Those two events were at opposite ends of the year and served as two “homecoming” days that kept people in touch with the hometown.
But nothing beat the feeling of carnival week when we were kids.
The festival meant excitement. I’ve never taken a poll, but I can guess at how many marriages occurred later as a result of young people mixing and mingling during festival week, the one week in the year when your parents let you stay out a bit past your usual curfew.
This was the week… the one we waited for all year: festival week.
There was something for everyone: for the religious, hourly Masses on the 16th, signaled by a loud boom to announce the next Mass; the procession of the images of the saints, the religious articles stands and the general atmosphere of the festival.
A couple years ago, I got curious about who these figures really were, and I did a quick study of most of the figures from the procession. The parish had put out a little booklet with a brief bio on each one, so I used that and supplemented it with some other research.
I was captivated by how each figure came alive was once I delved into their histories, and I felt that I’d made friends with them by learning more about them.
These were real people who struggled with what life sent their way. The one theme that emerged was that while they’d had plans for their lives, destiny had very different ideas about how they’d spend their time on earth.
It’s easy to forget that all of the figures in the procession were real people with real struggles. They are not just haloed, plaster icons to ask favors of; they were actual flesh and blood people whose lives were exemplary in some way. The more you know them the more you love them.
I can’t let this column go by without mentioning the hard voluntary labor that the people who run the stands donate. My father used to volunteer back when the Holy Name Society ran a stand… I am still in awe of the amount of heat, toil and sweat those guys endured… and people are still doing that, every year, to make the feast what it is. The Holy Name stand is gone, but there are plenty of others where people still work and sweat for the sake of the parish and the festival. They are all to be thanked and congratulated.
This is where we get “festival food:” Broccoli rabe, meatball and sausage sandwiches, cannoli, zeppoli aka fried dough, and my personal favorite: real, Philadelphia-style Italian lemon ice. You can have your cherry ice, your fancy watermelon and blueberry ices, but I am a purist where Italian ice is concerned.
Lemon ice is Italian ice and Italian ice is lemon. (This is not up for debate.)
It’s hard to convey to the younger folks just how big this week was for us.
In the long, monotonous drone of the days, weeks and months… festival week was this bright, shining star of a week. We waited all year for this, like thirsty nomads crawling across the desert sands of the year, waiting and longing for that one week when an oasis appeared…when for one week everything sparkled and shone; when there were lights and music and people, some of whom you didn’t see all the rest of the year; when there were deliciously fattening things to eat that you also didn’t see outside of the week of July 16th.
We’d spend hours fixing our hair just so. Hollywood makeup artists had nothing on us when it came to festival week makeup. I mean, we took pains to look perfect as we wandered around the dusty grounds and streets. We figured we needed to look like movie stars as we trudged through a very sandy lot, (don’t wear heels or sandals!) dodging the hawkers determined to relieve us of our blueberry packing money by throwing a ball into a basket that somehow mysteriously resisted intrusions.
Sometimes a boy would manage to win one of these ridiculously oversized stuffed bears for a girl. The girl would spend the rest of the night clutching the teddy proudly as she walked around the festival; the boy would walk at her side, glowing at his victory over the super large teddy. Sometimes the teddy would be almost bigger than the girl, but no victor was ever prouder of her spoils.
No prehistoric hunter who just slew a predator threatening his clan of cave dwellers was prouder than those boys who managed to defeat the house and win something for a girl he was hoping to impress. The stuffed animal would stay on the girl’s bedspread for the rest of the year. Maybe some people, now adult women, still have that stuffed teddy on one of their beds. I would not be surprised.
This was the week when anything was possible. It still is.
This is the week we honor a young woman who is known as “the most blessed among women” in two major world faiths… an unwed mother who indeed is known as one of the most righteous women to have ever lived… this is the week of miracles.
This is the week when you might even meet your one true love.
It has continued, thanks to the work of the people, for 146 years. This is the people’s festival, started and continued by the people. The clergy did not initiate this festival—the people did, out in the farms of the 19th century.
St. Vincent Pallotti saw that the people are the pillars of the church. I’m convinced that this is what causes a faith to persevere—the people themselves are the reason.
It is the best week in Hammonton.
Buona Festa della nostra Signora del Carmine a tutti!
Cherie Calletta was born and raised in Hammonton. She graduated Saint Joseph high school in 1977, then graduated from Rutgers College in New Brunswick and went to Japan for four years to teach English as a foreign language. She later spent about five years in Germany outside of Frankfurt am Main. After several years in Charlotte, North Carolina, she returned to Hammonton in 2002, where she and her husband make their home.