Every summer since 1927, the Italian fishing community of Gloucester, Massachusetts, celebrates Saint Peter with a festival that is equal parts deeply religious and overtly joyous, marking the passage of both a year of protection at sea and the survival of that same year.
Harkening back to traditions belonging to their forefathers, Gloucester’s Italian-American community incorporated the boisterous tradition of the Greasy Pole into more pious aspects of St. Peter’s feast day celebrations early on, and it continues to be the Fiesta’s biggest draw.
According to longstanding tradition, scores of men ranging in age from teens to community elders seek to navigate a 40-foot pole extending from a pier, at heights up to 25 feet above the surface of the ocean, to capture a red or Italian flag (depending) at the end without first plummeting into the water below. The pole itself is lubed with everything slippery known to mankind—ranging from axle grease to Tabasco sauce, banana peels to straight oil—making it a real challenge to reach the flag.
Though nothing about this activity is safe, a strict set of rules are enforced to help ensure the participants’ relative safety. Participants regularly emerge with bloodied faces and minor injuries. Police boats hover nearby in case a fall takes a tragic turn.
All competitors are allowed to participate in a “Courtesy Round,” where they can get a feel for the pole without attempting to capture the flag. After this first round, the contestants can then take their shot at grabbing the flag.
Generally speaking, though, a trophy is awarded for winning, the real prize is bragging rights and nothing more. That said, in a small, close-knit town like Gloucester, that’s nothing to shake a stick at; the first man to conquer the Greasy Pole passed away in 2011 and has a shrine at the pier dedicated in his honor.