As an Italian-American kid during the ’70s and ’80s in the heavily Italian-American town of Rochester, New York, one of the highlights of late winter was St. Joseph’s Day.
Rivaling the Irish
Coming two days after the more widely and raucously celebrated St. Patrick's Day, Italian families would honor the patron saint of workers and the protector of the family by laying out “tables” of sweets, breads and greens. On a nearby credenza always stood a statue of St. Joseph, the child Jesus in one hand and a lily in the other.
The lily detail has a fascinating history. In the Protevangelium, an apocryphal gospel attributed to St. James, an angel reportedly requested that all the walking sticks of eligible widowers in greater Jerusalem be collected and brought to the Temple. Joseph's staff burst into flowers, just as Aaron's did in the Old Testament, signaling that he was to be Mary's groom. Statues of St. Joseph have included lilies ever since.
St. Joseph's Day itself was like an open house, with family and friends dropping by my grandmother Nani's, Aunt Mary's or mother's house, grabbing a bite to eat and coming and going as they pleased. Ideally, the parish priest would kick things off with a prayer to bless the table.
All this saintly celebrating so close to St. Patrick's Day didn't always sit well with my Irish friends. It was as though the Italians were encroaching on their calendared turf. In reality, though, St. Joseph's Day has been celebrated in the US for decades by families with roots in the old country, especially Sicily.
A Generous Feast!
Tradition has it that during the Middle Ages Sicilians prayed to St. Joseph to end a drought-induced famine, and when their prayers were answered through a rain storm, the people showed their thanks by sharing their precious food with the poor. And precious it was, since for centuries Sicily has been one of the most impoverished regions in Italy.
The feast day almost always falls during Lent, so it's customary to exclude meat. As a result, sausages, meatballs and roasts culinary highlights in most Italian celebrations are conspicuously absent. Instead the emphasis is on sweets, with honeyed cakes, rolls, and breads piled high on the table. No table would be complete without a large platter full of sfinge (pronounced SF-EEN-GEE), essentially a cross between a donut and a cream puff drenched in honey.
Gritty Family Joy
George Weigel has a wonderful chapter about the “grittiness” of Catholicism in his book Letters to a Young Catholic. He describes how ours is a religion of “stuff”: physical things through which God feeds our sacramental imaginations. St. Joseph's Day reflects that perfectly. We come together as an extended family to share the food we've made from His creation, and then we “hand on” (the literal meaning of the word “tradition”) that custom to future generations.
This year it's my turn. After first moving to the Italian-deprived region of greater Cincinnati for school, I got far too accustomed to March 19 rolling around without any notice of the good St. Joseph. So my family is going to revive the tradition with a modest table. We've invited our parish priest to drop in for a blessing, and, since I'm a bit of a novice at this, my sister and her young family are driving in from New York three-foot statue of St. Joseph in tow to ensure that nothing is overlooked.
Rich Leonardi, publisher of the blog “Ten Reasons,” writes from Cincinnati, Ohio.