Many centuries ago, there was a great famine in Sicily. The Sicilians prayed to their patron Saint, Saint Joseph, the husband of Mary. The famine ended and in celebration, the Sicilians created displays giving thanks to their Saint. The tradition continued every year thereafter on March 19th, the feast day of St. Joseph.
When the Sicilian immigrants came to New Orleans, they brought that tradition with them.
For a traditional altar, the altar is built on three levels, representing the Blessed Trinity. A statue or photo of St. Joseph and sometimes the Holy Family — Jesus, Mary, Joseph, is placed on the highest tier. The altar is lavishly covered with prepared dishes, fish, fruit, vegetables, flowers, candles and wine, set strategically and artistically around the altar. Traditionally, the altars do not include meat because the feast day usually falls during Lent.
A St. Joseph Altar is all about the food, but with symbolism, which reflects faith and tradition.
Bread is shaped like crosses, Joseph’s staff, and his carpenter’s tools, including saws, hammers, and ladders. (St. Joseph’s bread is believed to have special powers. Throwing a morsel into a storm is believed to have the power to calm the winds. A piece kept in the house is supposed to ensure that the family will never be without food. A breadcrumb topping called mudrica, is sprinkled on pasta Milanese, representing the sawdust of the carpenter.)
Other symbolic foods include cakes shaped like lambs and covered in coconut, which represent the sacrifice of Christ. You’ll also find pastries formed like the pierced heart of the Mater Dolorosa, pignolatti resembling the pine cones Jesus is said to have played with as a child, whole fish symbolizing the Miracle of Multiplication, and wine recalling the feast at Cana. Swiping a lemon from the altar ensures one will meet the person you are destined to marry before the next St. Joseph’s Day, and each visitor takes away a dry, roasted fava bean for good luck. Fava beans are particularly associated with St. Joseph because they sustained the Sicilians throughout famine. Pick some up for good luck!
Italian Historical Fiction Author