Saturday, March 19, 2011

St. Joseph's Day

St. Joseph's Day

In many Italian communities, elaborate three-tiered altars are a key feature of St Joseph's Day celebrations. The altars are said to have originated in Sicily when a famine was cut short after prayers to St. Joseph resulted in a life-saving crop of fava beans.

St. Joseph's altars are piled high with a variety of foods including fruit, vegetables, Lent-appropriate fish, and dried favas. Because Joseph is the patron saint of pastry chefs, baked goods feature prominently: breads shaped like crosses or carpenters' tools (even the crumbs of which are considered to have the power to avert certain disasters), pastries resembling sacrificial lambs, fish, pinecones, or the Mater Dolorosa's sword-skewered heart. In some regions, St. Joseph's celebrants also enjoy zeppole, balls of fried dough topped with buttercream rosettes.

The photo above shows a St. Joseph's altar on display at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans, where the tradition arrived with Sicilian immigrants at the end of the 19th century:

"By 1910, forty percent of the population and 90% of the French Quarter was Italian, primarily Sicilian. At that time there were so many altars given in homes and churches that was impossible for one person to visit them all, even in one's own neighborhood. Instead another tradition developed: one could visit nine altars and at the ninth, one would make a wish and it would be granted. It is this thread of petition that runs through the tradition of the altar.

"Some altars are created out of a custom called questua, which means "searching" or "seeking". Instead of buying the ingredients and materials for the altar, one begs for them, further humbling oneself in an act of posverty. This recalls the impoverishment of the starving Sicilians who intially asked for St. Joseph's help. It also reminds the person on the questua of the purpose of the altar: to feed the hungry."

After the foods on the St. Joseph's altar have served their ceremonial purpose, they are distributed to the needy.

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