St. Joseph Altar / St. Joseph Table

La tavola di San Giuseppe è un’antica tradizione siciliana risalente all’epoca medievale ed ancora oggi popolare in alcune zone dell’Italia centro-meridionale. Pare che durante una terribile carestia i siciliani invocarono l’aiuto del Santo patrono, che esaudì le loro preghiere ponendo fine alla penuria di cibo. Da allora, la gente iniziò ad imbandire tavolate ricche dei prodotti della terra che poi venivano elargiti ai più bisognosi, in segno di gratitudine e riconoscenza verso il Santo. Una statua di San Giuseppe riccamente decorata con fiori, verdure, pane, frutta e dolci veniva collocata su un altare in legno allestito per l’occasione. Ancora oggi, la ricorrenza della festa di San Giuseppe viene celebrata il 19 marzo.

In Italy, March 19 is a very special day because it marks the Feast of St. Joseph. In addition to the feast it is also considered Father’s Day. A table overflowing with a variety of Italian food honoring St. Joseph is a traditional Sicilian custom that began in the Middle Ages when San Giuseppe is believed to have prevented a famine on the island. In Sicily, many regard Joseph as their Patron saint.

The tradition began during a time when there was no rain and the farmers’ plots of once plentiful fruits, vegetables and vines withered and became a sea of dust. The people prayed and the clouds opened, pouring life-growing water and nourishment, and they celebrated.  
To show their appreciation at harvest time, the first St. Joseph Altar was put in place and, as time passed, the tradition became more ornate and the altars’ assortment of foods broadened. The offerings of baked goods, fruits, breads, and cookies took on different forms and shapes and was distributed to the less fortunate. An ever-present symbol on the altar is the fava bean as a reminder of the needs of others. During Sicily’s famines, fava beans thrived while other crops failed. The dried bean is called “the lucky bean” and legend has it that the person who carries such a bean will never be without coins.

It’s very common for participants to share their personal reasons for celebrating and many involve recovery from an illness. Typically, the entire family takes part. One ritual calls for the children to portray members of the Holy Family:  Jesus, Mary, Joseph, Angels, and Patron saints. After the Holy Family has eaten, guests partake of the foods on the altar, some of it by begging - to symbolize what the poor of Sicily once did. 

The St. Joseph Altar is certainly a time of deep devotion to St. Joseph and one’s heritage. The feast is a source, celebration and act of thanksgiving. It’s also a reminder that those of good fortune should share with the less fortunate.