The place was Sicily. The drought was killing the plants and the animals, and the people were suffering. They pleaded to St. Joseph ("San Giuseppe" in Italian), their patron, for relief from the famine that gripped the island. At last the skies opened, sending down the life-giving and life-saving water. The people rejoiced, and to show their gratitude, they prepared a table with a special assortment of foods they had harvested. After paying honor to St. Joseph, they distributed the food to the less fortunate.
And so began the tradition of the St. Joseph's Altar.
The ultimate purpose of the altar is generosity. The traditional St. Joseph Altar is constructed in the shape of the cross, with three levels honoring the Holy Trinity and the three members of the Holy Family; Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. This format has varied greatly over the years, but generally includes a statue or picture of Joseph, often seen holding the baby Jesus. This stands at the center of the highest tier with flowers surrounding him, typically lilies. Candles are another item often displayed. Often the colors of red, white and green (the colors of the Italian flag) are displayed. Most altars have a basket where visitors can place written petitions.
The main attraction on the altar is food of every kind, which flavors the celebration of the saint, with the exception of meat, because it was forbidden in observance of Lent. Each food on the altar has some traditional significance. Breads are baked in the shapes of ladders, saws and hammers, the carpenter tools, and so forth. Hard-boiled eggs are embedded in baked bread to symbolize the rebirth of spring and the coming of Easter. The breadcrumbs represent the sawdust of the carpenter. Wine recalls the wedding feast at Cana.
In front of the altar, tables were filled with traditional homemade Italian dishes, pastas, eggplant parmesan, cannoli, fig cookies, meatless lasagna and casseroles. There is no meat, because those who survived the famine had little meat to put on their altar of thanksgiving, according to tradition.
The fava bean, which was the only crop that survived the drought and saved many from starvation, is called the lucky bean. The legend goes if you carry a fava bean or lucky bean in your pocket or purse you will never be without money, and the pantry with a fava bean in it will never be bare. Bowls of dried fava beans are often set on the altar and visitors are encouraged to take one.
A palm branch outside the building or house of an altar is an invitation to come in.
Many families believe that having a St. Joseph Altar can bring good fortune. It is common to hear stories about favors received (a loved one’s recovery from an illness, for example) which are in turn attributed to the family’s dedication to St. Joseph. But whatever the reasons, people became involved in the St. Joseph Feast. One of the special customs calls for the selection of children to portray members of the Holy Family – Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Angels and favorite saints may also be introduced into the ritual which begins with the “saints” going door to door to seek aid until finally reaching the place where the altar is on display.
After the Holy Family has eaten, guests may partake of the meal. Most of the foods presented on the altar are acquired through begging, a symbolic gesture that represents what the poor of Sicily were forced to do. When the feast is over, the remaining food and whatever money has been collected are given to the poor.
Visitors to St. Joseph Altars are given small paper bags containing a few blessed items from the Altar. The bags usually contain a holy card and a small medal. Various cookies or small breads may also be in the bag. Every goodie bag will have a fava bean inside.
Although there are perishable foods on the altars, a large portion of the breads, cookies and cakes are wrapped so that they may be given to charities after the altar is broken. All of the items on the altar -- food, candles, medals, holy cards and fava beans -- are blessed by a priest in a special ceremony the afternoon before an altar is broken.
The altar is broken after a ceremony which reenacts the Holy Family seeking shelter. The ceremony is called Tupa Tupa which in Italian means Knock Knock. Children dressed in costume knock at three doors asking for food and shelter. At the first two they are refused. At the third door, the host of the altar greets them and welcomes them to refresh themselves.
In some communities it is traditional to wear red clothing and eat a Sicilian pastry known as a zeppola on St. Joseph's Day. Sweets are popular because St. Joseph is the patron saint of pastry chefs.
On the Sicilian island of Lipari, The St. Joseph legend is modified somewhat, and says that sailors returning from the mainland encountered a fierce storm that threatened to sink their boat. They prayed to St. Joseph for deliverance, and when they were saved, they swore to honor the saint each year on his feast day.
Some villages like Belmonte Mezzagno used to burn wood and logs in squares on the day before St.Joseph, as thanksgiving to the Saint. This is called "A Vampa di San Giuseppe" (the Saint Joseph's bonfire).
In Italy March 19 is also Father's Day.
St. Joseph's Day is also the day when the swallows are traditionally believed to return to Mission San Juan Capistrano after having flown south for the winter.
Even if you are not Catholic, or even Christian, this is a good day to think of and do something for the poor. Food pantries are often overwhelmed with donations around Christmas, but the rest of the year many struggle to keep their shelves stocked. Host a dinner for your friends and family and invite all participants to bring with them a canned good or other non-perishable item to donate to your local food pantry. Investigate how you can help Meals on Wheels or other similar local organizations. Volunteer to help out at a food kitchen.
This is a day of thanksgiving as well as generosity. Count your blessings today by sharing with those less fortunate.
And carry a fava bean.