St. Joseph’s Day which falls on March 19th in the Catholic liturgical calendar, means many things for me. I can be assured that on this day I know that the long, Midwestern winter is nearing an end. I also know that there is great cause for celebration. Why? Because St. Joseph is the best saint ever (sorry to all the other saints), and also because I am Italian. Let me explain. If you are Catholic and Italian, March 19th means that you will get to partake in one of the best traditions we have: The St. Joseph’s Altar!
This tradition began with a historical event that took place in the middle ages. The island of Sicily (which is off the coast of Italy) had a severe famine due to a lack of rain. The devout farmers knew that there was only one thing to do to end the drought – pray to their patron, St. Joseph. The rains came soon enough and brought a bountiful harvest. The faithful people decided to thank St. Joseph for his intercession by erecting an altar (or table) filled with the bounty of the harvest. They invited the poor people of the community to partake in their blessing of food. Thus the tradition of the “St. Joseph Altar” began.
Since that time, Italians have given honor to their patron, St. Joseph by way of this traditional table. My paternal grandfather was a Sicilian immigrant, which meant my family had many opportunities to partake in such a beautiful tradition. I have seen altars erected in homes, in church gathering halls, and in community buildings. They range from very simple, to extremely ornate. But they all have two things in common: to give honor due to St. Joseph for his earthly life and now Heavenly intercession, and to share your blessings with those in need. Some families who have altars in their homes state a specific reason for their gratitude to St. Joseph such as his intercessory prayers for an illness cured, or for a new job. Altars are free for the public and specifically for those in need to attend. Any money that is donated to the altar is given to the poor.
Like most Catholic Italian traditions, a St. Joseph’s Altar is full of symbolism. The basic structure has three tiers, representing the Blessed Trinity. A large St. Joseph Statue has the place of honor, surrounded by beautiful white lilies. Placed on the other levels and on tables adjoining the levels is a rainbow of mouth-watering food. Everything from fresh fruit and vegetables, to delicate pastries and hearty breads is present. Here are a few of my favorite foods:
Spede- a pastry made with unleavened, hard cookie dough that is filled with a mixture of ground figs. The speda are formed into shapes and carved with intricate designs, then baked. My favorite spede design is the monstrance. This is a true art form!
Unleavened Bread- dry bread carefully shaped into crosses, crowns of thorns, and the beard and cane of St. Joseph.
Pasta Milanese – also called Pasta con Sarde is spaghetti with a tomato sauce made of a fish base, anchovy or sardines, the ferny tops of fresh anise, pine nuts and currants. Instead of grated cheese, browned seasoned bread crumbs (modica) is sprinkled on top. The bread crumbs symbolize the sawdust in St. Joseph’s workshop.
Frocia- an omelet made of eggs and other vegetables. There is no meat present at the table of St. Joseph. This could be due to the fact that this feast falls during Lent, or because Sicilians culturally did not frequently dine on meat.
A very important part of the St. Joseph Altar is the novena prayers that take place for nine days before the great feast. Family, friends, and others are invited to share in these special prayers, to offer up their petitions and gratefulness to favors given through St. Joseph’s intercession. The novena ends with a blessing by the parish priest over the contents of the altar.
Not to be forgotten is the children’s role at the altar. Four children are chosen from the community to dress up and portray either the Holy Family or specific saints. The children dine first at an exquisitely decorated table in front of the altar. All guests watch in silence as the little saints consume the “first fruits” of the feast. It is a great honor to be chosen!
I have the most beautiful and vibrant memories from attending and helping at St. Joseph’s Altars. My grandfather and my son are both Giuseppi. My father, and two Godsons are “Joseph”. My sister, a “Jo”. All these people have celebrated with me through the years. This is a tradition that I am proud of. A tradition that still lives richly in my church and local Italian community. A tradition that will never be forgotten! I look forward to the day that my family will be able to host an altar in our home. What a joy!
Viva, Viva, San Giuseppi!