March 19th is the Feast Day of St. Joseph, one of the most beloved saints in the Catholic tradition, regarded as the protector of the family. His feast day is celebrated in many ways throughout Italy, but it has a special significance to Sicilians and Sicilian-Americans.
The origin of the celebration dates back to a severe drought which took place in Sicily during the Middle Ages. Crops failed, farm animals died, and famine spread across the island. The Sicilian people turned their prayers to St. Joseph, asking him to intercede on their behalf for relief from the devastating famine, and they promised that, in return, they and their descendants would honor St. Joseph each year on his feast day. Rain came and returned life to the dried land. The disaster was averted, and the Sicilian people gave thanks to St. Joseph with a celebration. The villagers gathered food and placed it on the altars in front of statues of St. Joseph, along with flowers and grateful messages. This feast day has evolved into a joyous celebration of thanksgiving, hospitality, and charity, for the banquet table is traditionally opened to the poor and less fortunate as honored guests.
Although this observance is predominantly Sicilian, St. Joseph’s Table, as the feast came to be called, may be found throughout Italy, and, when the Sicilians immigrated to America, they brought the custom with them to their new homeland.
Traditionally, the table is shaped in one of two ways: in the form of a cross, or as an altar with three levels representing the Holy Trinity and the Holy Family. The table is decorated with statues of the saint with fruit and flowers, especially white lilies, a symbol of purity.
The outstanding decoration of the table, however, is the food itself. In particular, vestedde, (breads which may be edible or for decoration only) are baked in a variety of shapes: flowers, wicker baskets filled with fruits, angels, crowns, peacocks, fish, stars, and sheaves of wheat. Three special loaves are created for the highest level of the altar to represent the Holy Family: the pane grosso for St. Joseph, in the shape of his staff; Mary’s loaf shaped like a date palm tree; and, for Jesus, a large wreath with the center in the form of a star.
Preparation of the foods often begins weeks in advance, and the goal is to have a table overflowing with abundance, which is shared with family, neighbors, and strangers. At the front of the table will be placed a bowl of fave, uncooked dried fava beans. Each guest is invited to take one with him to keep in his pocket as a good luck charm and a symbol of abundance. Other dishes which fill the bountiful table are too numerous to list in detail, but include a variety of seafood (shrimp, baccalà, sardines, octopus, calamari), pasta, egg dishes, and vegetables (eggplant, cardoon, mushrooms, artichokes, fennel). On rare occasions, some tables may also include meat dishes.
Those following a very strict interpretation of the meal will prepare each type of vegetable or fish three different ways. Serving over 100 distinct dishes is not unusual.
Because St. Joseph is also the patron saint of pastry chefs, there are many decorative sweet rolls and pastries, including sfingi di S. Giuseppe (cream-filled puff pastries, similar to the zeppole of Naples and the tortelli of Milan), cuccidatti (a fig-filled confection which varies from small cookie shapes to large devotional rounds), cassateddi (sweet turnovers with ricotta filling), pignolate (deep-fried sweet dough dipped in honey), and fritelli (rice fritters).
As the Festa di San Giuseppe begins, the altar and food are blessed. Traditionally, three young children, a girl and two boys, are chosen to be the virgineddi, little virgins, representing Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. In some towns, a special ornate table is set up for the virgineddi; in other towns, the children wander among the tables of plentiful food set before the altar. In both cases, the children’s role is to sample a small bite of each dish. After they have performed this ritual tasting, the remaining family and guests help themselves to the feast.
No one is ever turned away from the town’s feast, and tourists who find themselves amid such a celebration in Sicily in March are indeed fortunate.