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The Feast of San Gennaro and how this Saint's Blood Miraculously Bubbles and Liquifies

Updated on November 18, 2015

San Gennaro is believed to protect Naples

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Statue of San Gennaro in Manhattan's Little Italy.
Statue of San Gennaro in Manhattan's Little Italy. | Source

The blood turns to liquid almost every year

The annual Feast of San Gennaro takes place on September 19. This is the day many people in Naples head to the cathedral.

San Gennaro, also known as St. Januarius, was a Roman Catholic bishop who died as a martyr under Emperor Diocletian in 305 A.D.

Born in Benevento, about 30 miles outside of Naples, San Gennaro was ordained a priest at age 15 and then became a bishop a few years later.

Because Diocletian persecuted Christians, San Gennaro, along with some friends, went into hiding. When they were found, various attempts were made to kill them.

First they were thrown into a fire, from which they emerged unharmed. Next they were fed to lions, who refused to eat them.

Finally, San Gennaro was beheaded and a pious woman collected some of his blood, now stored in two vials at the Naples Cathedral. The rest of his body is also interred in the cathedral.

The dried blood is normally kept under lock and key, But it's exposed for public viewing on the feast day, as well as on December 16 and the first Saturday in May. During these days the blood changes from solid to liquid.

When the feast is over, it returns to its solid state, as it has done for centuries.

The blood of San Gennaro confounds skeptics

Skeptics down through the ages have tried to dismiss the remarkable event of dried blood bubbling and becoming liquid, claiming that body heat causes this reaction.

But great care is taken to only touch the vials of blood at their tips. One of the vials contains only a few flecks of blood, so it's difficult to determine if it undergoes change.

The other vial, about four inches tall, is more than half filled. Although the vials are never opened, the blood volume doesn't remain constant. When the blood turns into liquid, it sometimes bubbles.

When the blood returns to its dried state, several days after it's exposed, it may take up more or less volume than it did before.

The large sealed vial has been weighed at various times, and the weight changes, despite the fact nothing is added or removed.

The Cardinal of Naples, before every public display of the blood, examines the vials to make sure the blood is dry. He then places the ampules on the altar and the faithful pray for the miracle to happen.

Sometimes the blood turns to liquid quickly. A little over a decade ago, it happened right away. But, in 2011, it took much longer and people began to worry.

During the few occasions when this didn't occur, calamities have hit Naples. The most recent was in 1980, when an earthquake killed more than 2,000 people.

So it's easy to understand why so many anxiously await to see if San Gennaro will protect their city for another year.

Each year, the mainstream press dutifully reports on whether the miracle happened or not.

San Gennaro in New York City

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A twist on the usual fried dough.
A twist on the usual fried dough. | Source

San Gennaro is also celebrated in Manhattan

Devotion to San Gennaro has crossed the Atlantic, traveling to America with immigrants from the Campagnia region of Italy.

LIttle Italy in Manhattan hosts the country's oldest religious festival held outdoors. During 11 days in September, Mulberry Street, where Italians first settled, becomes one big street fair.

You will find every Italian specialty here, including the sweet cheese stuffed canolis.

On San Gennaro's feast day - September 19 - his statue is carried through the neighborhood and festival-goers pin money to the base of the statue. This money is then given to the poor.

Food is a big part of this event. About 200 food stands and 35 restaurants feed the crowd that descends upon Little Italy, a neighborhood quickly being swallowed up by Manhattan's fast-growing Chinatown.

San Gennaro festivals are also now held in San Diego, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Cranston, Rhode Island.

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