Saint Joseph Day, New Orleans – A Sicilian Tradition in America

thefisher March 23, 2014

Celebrating Saint Joseph

Every year on March 19, Catholics set up elaborate altars to honor Saint Joseph.

On Tuesday in New Orleans, visitors can stop by altars in different locations around the city, covered in cookies, Easter eggs, and fava beans. Visitors can take home, for good luck, grapes representing the vineyards in Sicily, olives and olive oil, and pignolatti – small pieces of fried dough formed to look like pine cones and sawdust which represent Saint Joseph who was a carpenter. The table is always blessed by a priest and is built into three tiers, representing the Holy Trinity.

Origins of Saint Joseph Celebration Around the World

These elaborate altars are supposed to represent St. Joseph’s table, a tradition that began in Sicily.

According to legend the tradition began when Sicilians were suffering from an extended period of drought that dried up all of their crops. Residents prayed to their patron saint, Saint Joseph, for rain.

When it finally began pouring from the skies, a feast was set on a table in honor of their patron saint. The food was then distributed among the poor.

The first Saint Joseph’s altar was a lot smaller than the ones seen now around the world. As the tradition grew, people began adding more offerings and making the altars more elaborate.

Saint Joseph’s Day Traditions

In New Orleans the altars are ornate with tall pyramid shaped loaves of bread, assortments of cookies and olives. The city has also added its own unique twists to the holidays. Women who secretly steal a lemon from an altar will get married, according to legend.

New Orleans drew many Sicilians in the late 19th Century. For a while even the French Quarter earned the nickname “Little Palermo.” The Italian influence can now be seen in many of the city’s celebrations including 12th Night.

Feasting goes on all day until the eating is done. At this point the altar is smashed. A trio of children dressed as the Holy Family will knock on three doors asking for shelter. At the end of the day every participant will take home a bag filled with different foods from the feast as well as a medal of Saint Joseph and a blessed fava bean.