Wednesday, February 6, 2008


Once a year we went out to get lumber and cardboard boxes so we could build a large makeshift structure in the living room to be later covered with pastel-colored crepe paper and white linens. When it was finished we further decorated it with cut flowers that completely filled the room with a garden-like fragrance. We now had our altar and our front room had been transformed into a church-like sanctuary. Above the highest point of the altar hung an ornate framed picture of the bearded St. Joseph. He is holding the Baby Jesus and a single lily. According to those who believe, he’s not only the patron saint of home and family but also of the unfortunate ones in our society: the orphans and the homeless, unwed mothers and cuckolded husbands, the elderly, the needy and the poor.

In those days I knew little about the traditions of the feast day, but I knew that it fell regularly on March 19th, in the middle of Lent, and that he was the patron saint of Sicily and southern Italy. I knew that every year we celebrated on this day because of a vow my grandmother and grandfather had made to the saint. This was their way of thanking him for helping them in their particular time of need. For years we observed this ritual at our home in South Brooklyn: role-playing a religious tableau of the Holy Family, preparing and serving certain traditional foods, and by inviting relatives, friends and neighbors to partake in the festa and to come and go all day long until night-time.

Traditionally on March 19, in honor of St. Joseph, for years the well-to-do families in Sicily prepared an immense buffet in the public square and invited the poor and the needy to feast and celebrate. Southern Italian immigrants brought this tradition with them when they settled in America. They called it La Tavola di San Giuseppe (St. Joseph’s Table).

At our house, preparations for the feast began at least a week before; the altar was usually built and decorated by then; the foods were daily being prepared and stored. Some of the foods I still remember were the perciatelli con la mollica (pasta with bread crumbs instead of cheese because cheese is never eaten on St. Joseph’s Day), many different kinds of frittate (omelets), such as eggs and asparagus, eggs and onions, and eggs and just about any kind of vegetable. I also remember stuffed calamari, sardines, pine nuts and fennel. The most memorable of course, were the pastries, especially the zeppole or sfinge di San Giuseppe (cream puffs filled with a ricotta crema and topped with cherries or candied fruit and dusted with powdered sugar.

By the 18th of March, the day before the feast, all the decorative breads had been baked and placed on the altar. These were huge pane grosso, large wreathes of braided bread and other large breads shaped to symbolize St. Joseph’s beard and his staff (bastone), A variety of fruit and a mixture of nuts were also placed on the altar with the different breads.

A small boy and a young girl dressed in biblical attire, and an adult male were selected to represent the Holy Family - Jesus, the young Mary and the elderly St. Joseph. The old-timers called the small children “virgineddi” (the little virgins). After the priest blessed the altar with holy water the “Family” toured the house, knocking on doors, pretending to be looking for shelter. Three times they are refused until finally they are welcomed into the room with the altar. A table has already been set for them and now they sit and sample each of the delicacies. If there are other children present they join the Holy Family at the table; they are then served by the adults. After they have eaten the children go off to play and now the adults are ready to eat and celebrate. Immediately, shouts of “Viva San Giuseppe” fill the crowded rooms and platters of food and jugs of red wine are brought out. “Viva San Giuseppe,” the adults shout from time to time.

At the end of the evening after all have been fed and the guests prepare to leave, according to tradition, they take with them small sacks of food from the St. Joseph’s Table. Soon the planning starts for next year.

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