Did St. Joseph love a good meal?
Nothing in the Scriptures mentions this about Joseph. But given a tradition that started in Sicily and spread even to parts of the United States, including New Orleans, he might be persuaded to sit down to a good meal today. And since Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus had to be poor refugees for a time, the tradition of serving food to all at St. Joseph’s Tables offers a great Lenten example of alms giving.
Tables in the square
On St. Joseph’s feast day, March 19, those who follow the Sicilian traditions set up St. Joseph Tables (la Tavala di San Giuseppe). While once set up in town squares, today these tables are usually set up in Catholic church halls.
The start of the tradition most often recounted is that, in the 17th century, a drought hit Sicily. The people turned to St. Joseph, asking him to intercede for them. The drought soon ended and, after the next harvest, people set up a banquet of thanksgiving on March 19. Everyone, rich and poor, was invited. The hungry were especially welcomed.
Since the banquet was held on the saint’s feast day, which fell in Lent, no meat was served. This tradition continues to this day. Nor is there cheese, since dairy products were also not allowed during Lent for centuries. A variation of the tradition, shared among Italian-Americans in New York, is that the drought was actually a lack of fish. This affected the coastal fishermen who made their living off the sea. They also prayed for St. Joseph’s aid and this is why fish is so prominently featured at the St. Joseph Tables. (Also, since St. Joseph Tables are filled with religious symbolism — we should remember that a symbol of Christ is the fish. And that he multiplied both fish and loaves of bread.)
However, even lacking meat and cheese, there is plenty of fish and seafood, spaghetti and minestrone, vegetables, fava beans and fruit (especially citrus). And bread abounds.
Bread in many shapes
This bread comes in all shapes and sizes — most often bread comes in the shape of a walking staff (such as the one Joseph would have held on the road to Egypt), carpenter tools and even swaddled babies, to honor Jesus, whose foster father Joseph was. There are also breads shaped like sheaves of wheat or St. Joseph’s beard (often a sheaf of wheat loaf that gets baked turned upside down.) There are even loaves of bread shaped like a swaddled child — for Baby Jesus.
A St. Joseph Table is arranged in three levels, like steps, with an image of Joseph — usually holding the baby Jesus — on the top step. These tables are sometimes called “altars,” since they have three steps as many altars did in churches. The three steps symbolize the Trinity. The table is usually blessed by the priest or a parish leader.
To remember the sacrament of the Mass, St. Joseph Tables usually include wine as well as bread. And there are always fava beans. It is said that fava beans grew even when nothing else would during the drought. So when anyone leaves the celebration —besides carrying a bag of leftovers — they take along at least one “lucky fava bean” for the next year.
Another tradition of the day is the reenactment of the Flight into Egypt. The procession bears a resemblance to the Mexican tradition of Las Posadas, where Mary and Joseph seek a room at the inn. In this St. Joseph Day tradition, an entire crowd takes part in the procession, including the Holy Family, angels and even the 12 apostles. Sometimes, to emphasize the care of the needy, there are also 12 children — representing orphans — and/or 12 elderly people called “li vessierreddi” (“dear old people”).
Joseph knocks on three doors as they move along, calling out, “Tupa, tupa” (Knock, knock). Twice, he is refused shelter. But on the third try, someone always asks, “Who is it?” When Joseph says, “I am St. Joseph. I seek shelter for Mary and Jesus,” he is welcomed joyously. The cry is “Vive Jesu, Maria e Giuseppe.”
As for the connection to New Orleans, better known for its ties to Mardi Gras, there is a large population of Italian-Americans in the city. According to the City of New Orleans, 290,000 Italian immigrants arrived during a 40-year period starting in 1884, and settled in what had been the French Quarter. The area eventually became known as “Little Palermo.” (Palermo is the capital of Sicily.)
And, even though it is Lent, desserts are part of St. Joseph’s Table, according to various sources including the Italian Sons and Daughters of America. One of the favorites is the Sicilian crème puff known as the Zeppole di San Giuseppe. This pastry is deep fried and filled with flavored creams or sweetened ricotta cheese. (Yes, even though cheese is not used otherwise.) It is often topped with Amarena, a sour cherry preserve, and powdered sugar.
Finally, when the meal is done, leftovers and any donations received are passed on to local charities.
Sources: Catholicculture.org; The Kansas City Star at kansascity.com; Aleteia.org; National Catholic Register at ncregister.com; Buffalolore.buffalonet.org; fisheaters.org; NPR.org; the Italian Sons and Daughters of America at Orderitsda.org