Today is the Solemnity of St. Joseph, known to Italian-Americans as St. Joseph’s Day. The day’s open-house celebrations, featuring tables of traditional Italian food and scores of cousins, were a staple of my youth in Rochester, New York. Here’s Fisheaters with some background:
St. Joseph’s Day is a big Feast for Italians because in the Middle Ages, God, through St. Joseph’s intercessions, saved the Sicilians from a very serious drought. So in his honor, the custom is for all to wear red, in the same way that green is worn on St. Patrick’s Day.
Today, after Mass (at least in parishes with large Italian populations), a big altar (“la tavola di San Giuse” or “St. Joseph’s Table”) is laden with food contributed by everyone (note that all these St. Joseph celebrations might take place on the nearest, most convenient weekend). Different Italian regions celebrate this day differently, but all involve special meatless foods: minestrone, pasta with breadcrumbs (the breadcrumbs symbolize the sawdust that would have covered St. Joseph’s floor), seafood, Sfinge di San Giuseppe, and, always, fava beans, which are considered “lucky” because during the drought, the fava thrived while other crops failed (recipes below).
The table — which is always blessed by a priest — will be in three tiers, symbolizing the Most Holy Trinity. The top tier will hold a statue of St. Joseph surrounded by flowers and greenery. The other tiers might hold, in addition to the food: flowers (especially lilies); candles; figurines and symbolic breads and pastries shaped like a monstrance, chalices, fishes, doves, baskets, St. Joseph’s staff, lilies, the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts, carpentry tools, etc.; 12 fishes symbolizing the 12 Apostles; wine symbolizing the miracle at Cana; pineapple symbolizing hospitality; lemons for “luck”; bread and wine (symbolizing the Last Supper); and pictures of the dead. There will also be a basket in which the faithful place prayer petitions.
And here’s your host in a 2005 piece for Catholic Exchange:
Coming two days after the more widely — and raucously — celebrated St. Patrick’s Day, Italian families would honor the patron saint of workers and the protector of the family by laying out “tables” of sweets, breads and greens. On a nearby credenza always stood a statue of St. Joseph, the child Jesus in one hand and a lily in the other.
The lily detail has a fascinating history. In the Protevangelium, an apocryphal gospel attributed to St. James, an angel reportedly requested that all the walking sticks of eligible widowers in greater Jerusalem be collected and brought to the Temple. Joseph’s staff burst into flowers, just as Aaron’s did in the Old Testament, signaling that he was to be Mary’s groom. Statues of St. Joseph have included lilies ever since.
St. Joseph’s Day itself was like an open house, with family and friends dropping by my grandmother Nani’s, Aunt Mary’s or mother’s house, grabbing a bite to eat and coming and going as they pleased. Ideally, the parish priest would kick things off with a prayer to bless the table.
All this saintly celebrating so close to St. Patrick’s Day didn’t always sit well with my Irish friends. It was as though the Italians were encroaching on their calendared turf. In reality, though, St. Joseph’s Day has been celebrated in the US for decades by families with roots in the old country, especially Sicily.