The feast is a celebration for all of us
The mystical, mythical month of July in the town of Hammonton is unlike any other time or place.
It is the place and time that generations of migrant workers have met the rush of the agricultural industry, while humidity settles in over the town like a heavy comforter on an old brass bed.
This time, this place, not so far removed from where we are now, is where our legend begins. On the dusty strip known as Pine Road, with the Italian and Italian-American farm laborers who predated the workers of today. Many of them are the ancestors of current residents of Hammonton.
Their dress and last names were foreign then. They had come to America in the late 1800s, and—it’s not a new story—not given much of a chance.
A sociological study done on the local Italians by Emily Fogg Mead, who was the mother of famed sociologist Margaret Mead was conducted in Hammonton in the early part of the 20th Century. It listed the negative stereotypes the Italian immigrants faced locally.
Prejudice after prejudice was levied against them. They were told to sit in the back of the classroom. The community looked upon them as second-class citizens.
But they leaned on each other, on the familiarity of their customs and their Catholic religion. One day in 1875—July 16, the “Feast Day” of Our Lady of Mount Carmel—they took a moment in time, a brief pause from the backbreaking work in the fields.
There was a feeling of elation and joy at that first feast, with men parading around the home of Antonio Capelli, carrying a painting depicting Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
At its heart, it was a celebration of shared faith, of life and of each other. People meeting and spending some time together, joyous that they had made it.
The feast has grown and changed during the last 145 years—this year marks the 146th time it will be celebrated in Hammonton, making it the longest-running Italian-American Festival in the United States.
It has spread out across three different centuries, a bridge between now and then, one that spans several generations of families. Many of those families have, miraculously, remained in Hammonton.
The names are still here, in some cases the people themselves are still here. They have marked the anniversaries of the feast through the decades.
The feast is still basically what it was on July 16, 1875: an opportunity for the people of Hammonton to meet, to spend some time together, to share thanks to God and Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
It is an opportunity to be joyous that we all have made it.
It is the town’s summer reunion.
Our ancestors would be so proud of us this week, seeing their small gathering on a country lane turned into the town’s largest weeklong event. They strove to have the whole community join in, willing to share their good time with all.
Now the entire town shares in the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. We see Italian-Americans walking side-by-side with people from diverse backgrounds in the Grand Procession of Saints that winds through the downtown streets on July 16. The faith, food, fireworks, family, friends and fun are there for all to enjoy, all week.
Everyone has a right to be joyous, a right to be glad they made it.
The feast, at this place, at this time, in the mystical, mythical month of July, is Hammonton’s signature event. It is what makes us who we are because it is a part of who we were. The feast resonates through all of us for different reasons, whether you call it “the feast,” “the carnival,” “the 16th of July,” “the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel” or “the Mount Carmel Festival.”
For some, the sight of Italian flags lining Bellevue Avenue, Third Street and Tilton Street/Mount Carmel Lane swells their hearts with pride.
Others stroll with their children along the carnival’s midway, and remember tossing softballs at Coke bottles, in the hope of winning a stretched-out Pepsi bottle filled with water stained bright blue with food coloring. “Carnival glass,” we told our mothers when we brought it home.
Some remember that ride on the double Ferris wheel, or the Round Up, or the Tilt-A-Whirl, with that first date.
Or that first bite of a sausage and pepper sandwich, spicy and delicious, that you swore only tasted that way at a food stand.
The sound of a Sousa march playing in the air. The sight of the fireworks exploding over the carnival grounds. The low murmur of the Rosary following the statue of Our Lady of Mount Carmel as it goes through the streets of town. The aroma of freshly-cooked “stand” pizza and hot dogs and French Fries wafting through the humid air.
This feast is ours, all of ours, whether we are Italian or not, whether we are religious or not. It is woven into our collective hearts and souls by the shared history of 146 years, including this year.
On Friday the 16th, on my birthday, I will watch the saints go by, as they have for generations.
And I will never be more in love with my hometown than I am on that day. I hope to see you and your family.
Let’s celebrate the fact that we have all made it.
It is a joyous occasion, just as it was on that dirt road, on July 16, 1875.
Gabe Donio is the publisher of The Hammonton Gazette.