Saint Joseph, (San Giuseppe) was chosen by the eternal Father as the trustworthy guardian and protector of his greatest treasures, namely his divine Son and Mary, Joseph’s wife. The beloved saint looks after children, unwed mothers, the needy and is the patron saint of Sicily.
To celebrate his feast day on March 19, Sicilian villages and towns create altars and ritual meals. The Saint Joseph’s altar is Sicilian in origin.
During a horrendous famine, the people of Sicily prayed to their patron saint for relief. The rains came down from the heavens and a bountiful crop of fava beans supplied an unexpected source of food and the people of Sicily were saved.
When he answered their prayers, they prepared an elaborate feast to express their gratitude.
Although many Italians settled across the United States in the nineteenth century, New Orleans was the destination for Sicilians (the French Quarter was nearly 80% Sicilian). And they brought their patron saint and the yearly tradition of the altar with them.
The Saint Joseph Altar is set up in three tiers, representing the Holy Trinity. A statue of Saint Joseph is placed on the top, surrounded by flowers, candles and fruit.
In Italy, it takes dozens of women working many days to make all of the ornamental breads. Large braided breads (cudureddi) are typically in the form of a cross, crown, (for Jesus) staff (for Joseph) and palm (for Mary). The smaller breads, in the shape of almost everything in God’s creation, are placed on the finest linens and laid upon the altar.
The banquet may vary from place to place, but there is always an abundance of platters filled with food and since San Giuseppe is the patron saint of pastry cooks, many dishes are dessert (no wonder we have such a sweet tooth).
Cookies, cakes and pastries are baked in the form of crosses, doves, lambs and other symbolic shapes. The season’s finest vegetables and fruits are arranged in baskets replicating cornucopias of plenty.
Breadcrumbs represent the sawdust of the carpenter saint, whole fish signify the Miracle of the loaves and fishes and wine recalls the feast of Cana. No altar would be complete without the fava bean, the symbol for “good luck” and generosity.
The focus of the Feast of Saint Joseph is on the “altar-table” (blessed by a priest) and on feeding the community, be it family and friends, the neighborhood or a village. But, you just know if you’re in New Orleans, there will be a marching band and a parade!
When the celebration is over, the altar is broken up with a ceremony of costumed children (pretending to look for sustenance at the altar). The food is then distributed to those in need.
Saint Joseph’s bread is believed to have special powers. A piece kept in the home is supposed to insure that the family will never be without food. As I have said before, (Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread and Briciola di Pane) bread is fundamentally and symbolically important to Sicilian life.
Prayer to St. Joseph
Gracious St. Joseph, protect me and my family from all evil,
as you did the Holy Family.
Kindly keep us ever united in the love of Christ,
ever fervent in imitation of the virtues of our Blessed Lady,
your sinless spouse, and always faithful in devotion to you.