By: Raymond Guarini
The Feast of San Giuseppe
Most Italian communities across North America are immersed in their heritage as we rapidly approach Palm Sunday and Easter during this Lenten season. A big part of experiencing Italian tradition is rooted in the Catholic faith and that is precisely why younger generations should always know “why” traditions such as La Tavola Di San Giuseppe exist; so that sanctity can endure.
Depending on who is in your sphere of influence both virtually on social media and in your everyday lives, you may have been exposed to the many displays of Catholic tradition from Italian communities. This is especially so if your social media algorithms are anything like ours at Italian Enclaves or if you live near or within an Italian enclave.
Our feeds on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter were filled with glorious photographs in the last week that depict ornately prepared Saint Joseph’s tables sporting delectable dishes as well as various breads, vegetables and fruits. We have taken this opportunity to reflect on this sacred time and to share with our readers the photographs from the unique window that Italian Enclaves enjoys into the lives of multi-generational Italians and their organizations throughout North America.
As Sicilians arrived in North America, they settled in many different parts of the country. Italian Enclaves has a unique connection to these places not only by having traveled to most but also because of the interrelatedness amongst these locations on Social Media, especially on feast days. We have received permission to share the above photos from our friends in Denver, New Jersey, New Orleans, Brooklyn, Queens, and Kansas City; just to name some. Of course, there are many more places where Saint Joseph tables are prepared, but those shown maintain some of the longest-lasting traditions in the Country and give a very clear sense of how far this tradition stretches and the immensity of the overall Italian American influence in North America.
What is Saint Joseph’s Day and why are the tables made?
Saint Joseph’s Day is on March 19th of each year and is a sacred day during Lent on which Italians celebrate Joseph, the father of Christ. There are a ton of variations as to where the tradition of “making” a Saint Joseph table originated. Some say that it originated in Sicily to end a seven year drought. Others say it started when the Sicilians revolted against French rule. Yet another variation claims that the tables originated by fishermen who were not catching enough fish to feed their towns, and therefore prayed for the intercession of Joseph to cure the famine caused without nourishment from the sea.
Each story may be true, but unconditionally the tradition itself always maintains a quid pro quo. A common denominator to all Saint Joseph Table origination stories establishes that these elaborate altars were created to honor Saint Joseph in return for a blessing. Some tables were created to receive blessings for a sick relative while others were created to bless a parent’s son to return home from war. There are many who create a table to give thanks for general, good fortunes that they already have received and attribute them to Saint Joseph.
In Sicily, the strictest line of belief that is related to the origins of the Table was that there was always a prayer to Saint Joseph to feed the poor, young orphans (le virgineddi-the little virgins), and the elderly (li vecchierreddi). Henceforth, tables were created to not only receive good fortune in crops or fishing for the community at large, but most importantly, to provide for the weak and feeble; a truly commendable example of humanity’s selflessness.
What is on the Table?
Firstly, the variations of tables we have seen perfectly captures the essence of what Italian Enclaves strives to represent; a general community made up of many smaller communities with each having unique, geographic elements…
The table is most often made with three levels to represent the Holy Trinity. Every table is to have an image of Saint Joseph. Some tables have statues as well. Other elements are: flowers (lilies), specially shaped loaves of bread, fruits, vegetables and freshly sprouted wheat if geography allows; otherwise, in lieu of wheat, many display fennel. The diversity of these tables makes looking at them enjoyable because no two are exactly alike.
One can also find traditional foods on the Saint Joseph Table such as “pasta con sarde,” (below) which is pasta in a sauce made with anchovies, chopped fennel tops, sardines, and mollica (which are toasted breadcrumbs and sugar-generally used to represent the sawdust from Joseph’s workshop or to others, used due to a the scarcity of cheese during ancient times). Please enjoy the following photos which are cropped screen shots from some of the people that we follow back on Social Media and who also represent a sample set of the amazing abundance of traditions taking place amongst the Italians in North America.
Cod can also be found on the table as well as olives, cardoons, artichokes and cauliflower.
As for the desserts found on the table, the most popular are sfinge,zeppole, pizzelli, strufoli, and taking the attention on most social media feeds, sfinge di San Giuseppe (cream puffs made with ricotta cream filling-cannoli cream). We have seen these pastries represented in our social media feeds in countless variations so I gathered some favorite photos of these pastries that were shared by those we follow back on Instagram. Please enjoy!
I hope that the takeaway from this piece is that the traditions that underscore our heritage are kept, and passed onto younger generations. The preservation of these traditions and the teaching of their importance is paramount to maintaining cultural identity in a fast-changing society.
A special thanks to:
American Italian Cultural Center- Saint Joseph Catholic Church in Gretna
Robert William Kearney- Kansas City Saint Joseph Table from Scalabrini Hall
John Napoli- Whose incredible blog Il Regno features the table from St. Athanasius in Brooklyn (http://ilregno2s.blogspot.com/)
Little Italy Of Denver @littleitalyofdenver (insagram) Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Catholic Church.
Saint Joseph Society of Lodi-New Jersey
Buffalo, New York-photo courtesy of Jason Parisi
Special thanks to all of the others whose photos we shared. Please share this with all who would appreciate it.
Isabella A. Virgilio, San Diego, CA- The Italian Catholic Federation , Branch #246 @ St. Vincent de Paul Church in San Diego