St. Joseph's Altar
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The St. Joseph Day Altars began as a custom brought to New Orleans by Sicilian immigrants. According to legend, during the Middle Ages, a terrible drought and famine plagued the people of Sicily. It virtually destroyed most of their crops and many died of starvation. The people began praying to St. Joseph and begged for his intercession to their plight. In return, they promised to celebrate his feast day by having special altars abundant in food that would be s
hared with all people rich and poor as their Thanksgiving to him. On March 19th, the prayers of Sicily’s people were answered as the rains came and the land which had been brown and barren was now lush and green again. Sicily’s people have kept their promise to St. Joseph through the generations by preparing elaborate altars containing the people’s most prized possession of those days – foods made from the harvest of their plentiful crops. The concentration of Sicilian immigrants in New Orleans explains why this tradition is almost exclusive to this southeastern city. Today the individuals who work on the altars are fulfilling their own promises to St. Joseph. One of the traditions of the altar entails begging for the supplies to build the altar. The altar must not incur any expense nor result in any personal financial gain. The personal sacrifice by those involved in begging for the necessary food and the long hours of preparation is offered up to God through St. Joseph. The building of an altar is a true labor of love and a way of preserving the traditions of the Italian heritage.
Although there are perishable foods on the altars, a large portion of the breads, cookies, and cakes are wrapped and, along with the fresh produce, are given to various charities once the altar is broken. The altar is broken after a ceremony which reenacts the Holy Family seeking shelter. The ceremony is called “Tupa Tupa” which in Italian means “Knock Knock”. Children dressed in costume knock at three doors asking for food and shelter. At the first two, they are refused. At the third door, the host of the altar greets them and welcomes them to refresh themselves. The blessing of the altar follows, after which the public is invited to leave written petitions to St. Joseph or donations for the poor.
The head of the altar is built on three levels which symbolize the Holy Trinity – God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. A Statue of St. Joseph or a picture of the Holy Family is at the top. The tables are all draped in white linen, which can be further decorated with lace, etc. and adorned with flowers, especially lilies, which are traditionally associated with St. Joseph. Palms, such as those strewn before Jesus as he entered Jerusalem, may also appear. The head tables contain many pictures and statues of other saints, blessed candles, and pictures of deceased loved ones or people in need.
Fava Beans, also known as Lucky Beans, play a prominent role in the St. Joseph Altar. During one of Sicily’s severe famines, the fava bean thrived while all the other crops failed The fava bean was originally grown as animal fodder, but because of its amazing resilience, it became the sustaining food of the farmers and their families. It can be served in a frittata (omelet), in garlic sauce or over pasta. Legend has it that the person who carries a lucky bean will never be without coins. The fava bean is a token of the St. Joseph Altar and a reminder to pray to St. Joseph, particularly for the needs of others.
Petitions of the visitors are placed in a bowl or basket at the foot of the altar. These can be requests to St. Joseph to bring a child home from war, return someone to health, help with any type of problem or for remembrance and prayers for someone who has died.
Food and Symbols – The altars contain a large number of fresh fruits and vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, pineapples, apples, oranges, grapes, bananas, eggplants and cabbages. These symbolize the plentiful crops grown in Sicily. There are several interpretations for lemons appearing on the altar. Many citrus orchards are found in Sicily. It is said to be good luck to “steal” a lemon from the altar, leaving money behind for the poor. Some say that a blessed lemon from an altar will not turn black. Others say the lemon was a luxury and seeing it on the altar is a symbol of the Sicilians returning to good fortune. The most popular interpretation is that stealing a lemon (without getting caught) ensures you will be married. Figs can also be found in abundance on the altar, alluding to the vast fig orchards of Sicily.
Fish and shellfish are used for two reasons. First, these were much more common in Sicily than meat. Secondly, the Feast of St. Joseph falls during Lent, when Catholics abstain from eating meat. The fish, along with various wines on the altar, symbolize miracles performed by Jesus (i.e. miracle of the loaves and fishes, wine at the wedding in Cana).
Breads are a main focus of the altar and can be found in a variety of shapes and designs. There are breads that honor the Holy Family. The bread for St. Joseph is in the shape of a staff. According to legend, the staff of St. Joseph bloomed with entwining flower blossoms which singled him out from Mary’s other suitors as her husband-to-be. The bread for Mary is in the shape of a date palm, and a wreath with a star in the center represents Jesus. Other symbols of St. Joseph are a hammer, ladder, saw, nails, sandal, and lily. Breads can be baked in the form of a Monstrance (holds the host), chalice (refers to the consecration of Jesus’ blood into wine), a cross (crucifixion of Jesus), a dove (the Holy Spirit), Lamb (Jesus), fish (the apostle being fishers of men), a heart pierced by a dagger (Mary’s heart), hearts (the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary), or a crown of thorns. Cuccidatti, or breads that contain figs, are also found in these decorative forms.
Pignolatti are fried pastry balls joined together with syrup in the shape of a pine cone. These symbolize the pine cones Jesus played with as a child.
Pupaculova is a type of baked bread that contains a dyed Easter egg inside. The egg represents the coming of Easter. There may also be a basket containing dyed eggs to symbolize Easter as well.
Bread crumbs appear in several places since no meats are used on the altar. The seasoned bread crumbs, called Mudica, are served over Pasta. The bread crumbs symbolize sawdust – something quite common to a carpenter such as St. Joseph. The bread crumbs are also used in stuffed artichokes, which are plentiful in Sicily, as well as in the frittatas.
The cookies are a favorite item on the altar. Large and small fig cakes in different patterns are shown. Biscotti in different shapes and sizes, iced in various colors and flavored with almond, vanilla, lemon, or anise symbolize the wheat and spices the Sicilians grew.
St. Lucy is the patron of the blind and visually impaired, is affiliated with St. Joseph as she was another Sicilian Saint - a Christian martyr who was blinded as punishment for her refusal to denounce her faith. A pie having eyes cut out of the top crust or an open fig cake with an eye made from pastry symbolizes St. Lucy. Bowls of chi chi beans are placed on the Altar, symbolizing St. Lucy's eyes.
Over the entrance to the altar, a fresh green branch, such as a palmetto or olive branch, indicates hospitality and that the public is invited to participate in the altar and the sharing of food.
Photos used, with the exception of the photo of St. Joseph statue holding our St. Angela pre-schooler's hand, are credited to SVP Media Group, who did an awesome job memorializing our First Annual Parish Family St. Joseph's Day Celebration and Altar in March 2016.