St. Joseph’s Table
An Italian Tradition
St. Joseph’s Table (altar)
The Feast of St. Joseph, which always falls in the middle of Lent, is especially commemorated and celebrated in Italy in general, and Sicily in particular, where St. Joseph has been long-regarded as the island’s Patron saint. It is there, among Sicilians, that the tradition of the “Tavola di San Giuseppe” or “St. Joseph’s Table” has its origins.
March 19th is, in Italy, also Father’s Day—which isn’t at all surprising, as St. Joseph was, of course, the foster father of Jesus. This celebration is a symbolic “thank you” and a renewal of the Sicilian people’s devotion to Saint Joseph.
It is a shared celebration with the entire community where the riches of food are given as alms to the poor: traditional etiquette is that no one can be turned away from this table.
Legends from the Middle Ages attributed the end of a devastating drought to a prayer-devotion that the Sicilian people made to St. Joseph.
During a time of drought and famine, no rain fell on Medieval Sicily. Food crops for both people and livestock withered and died. The people prayed to St. Joseph for help.
When the clouds opened, the desperately-needed rain poured down, and there was much rejoicing! After the harvest, to show their gratitude, they prepared a table with special foods to honor St. Joseph and to share with the poor. After thanking and honoring the saint, they distributed the food to the less fortunate.
This celebration became an annual tradition. Each year, wealthy families prepared huge buffets. The less fortunate people of the community, especially the homeless and sick, were invited, and all the remaining food and proceeds were given to the poor.
Through the years, the tradition has remained throughout Italy, and is also prevalent in Poland, Malta, Spain, the Phillipines, and, with the influx of Sicilian immigrants to the US, here in our own country.
The heart of this tradition can be found in these three aspects:
Veneration—special recognition of St. Joseph during Mass and at the “table.”
The Table—both a kind of “altar of reverence”, and a communal celebration.
The Poor—The intention of all the gifts is to help those in need.
The festive nature of the table celebration is all about St. Joseph, but the primary veneration is during Mass. When the “table” is part of a parish activity, the “celebration” follows Mass. At Mass, St. Joseph, Mary and the child Jesus bring up the gifts; parishioners dressed as the Holy Family emphasize the stewardship of St. Joseph’s gifts to the Church. Included with the normal sacramental gifts are some representative food items from the “table”, especially hand-fashioned breads. In many parishes, after Mass, the statue of St. Joseph is carried, procession-style, into the parish hall to be placed in a prominent spot on the “altar”, surrounded by lilies and other items.
Preparation and Symbolism
A St. Joseph’s Day “Table” or “Altar” is a makeshift shrine/dinner festival that can be held in one’s home, or in a church hall or club hall. The host family or parish group creates what amounts to a living work of art.
A parish St. Joseph’s Table is typically a three-tiered display covered with white linen tablecloths. The three tiers represent the Holy Trinity, and the ascent from earth to heaven. A statue of St. Joseph is placed on the top tier.
The other tiers might hold flowers (especially lilies), candles, statues and holy cards. Then an array of symbolic breads and pastries are displayed. There may also be wine, symbolizing the wedding feast at Cana; pineapple symbolizing hospitality; lemons and limes and other fruit. There is typically a basket in which the faithful place prayer petitions.
An at-home version of this can be simpler, but should follow the same themes, and is often the setting for a gathering of several families to celebrate together.
The effect of the table design is meant to be dignified, solemn, yet festive, grand and inspiring.
Much symbolism should be incorporated into the shape and decoration of the table. For example, vigil lights of green, brown and deep yellow, representing St. Joseph’s attire, can be placed all around, and the table can be surrounded by palms reminiscent of the Holy Land.
In many parish celebrations, a special smaller table is set for the “Holy Family” right in front of the display. This is where those who portrayed Jesus, Mary and Joseph at Mass will eat—a place of high honor.
The “Table” is also a celebration
In its most elaborate form, the celebration may include a religious tableau. The volunteers who portray the Holy Family–an older man, a lovely young woman, and a little child—enter the room and are seated at the head table and remain there during the early part of the festivity. Others accompanying this “Holy Family” are twelve men or boys, representing the Apostles and other children, attired as angels.
The priest blesses the food, and the “Holy Family” is served first. Then, the celebration can begin. Visitors line up for food (buffet style), and, in most cases, joyful (and respectful) Italian-style music is played, either live or recorded.
In cases where St. Joseph’s Day falls mid-week and Mass is celebrated in the evening, the celebration may be more abbreviated in the interest of the time of day or can be moved to the nearest weekend day that is practical.
Often, in consideration of the closeness of St. Patrick’s Day, St. Pat is included and represented at the table celebration, and Irish food is also available.
And, as it has developed, there are two constants for the “table”: there is no meat (since it’s Lent) and the presence of sesame-coated breads in symbolic shapes.
(Again, if the celebration happens after an evening Mass, the food that is served may simply be desserts and coffee.)
Breads, baked into symbolic shapes, are the centerpiece of the food table and the altar. The breads themselves are made from the same dough that forms traditional Italian bread and are often made into interesting and symbolic shapes for St. Joseph’s Day. For examples, see the section below.
Other foods that are often present at more elaborate St. Joseph’s Table “feasts” include:
Minestras, or very thick soups, are made of lentils, favas and other types of beans, together with escarole, broccoli or cauliflower. Other vegetables–celery, fennel stalks, boiled and stuffed artichokes–are also traditional.
St. Joseph’s Day Pasta, also called Sawdust Pasta or Carpenter’s Pasta, made with bread crumbs sautéed in butter to resemble wood sawdust. Cheese isn’t used, symbolic of the food shortage experienced in the origin legend of the tradition.
Sweet Pasta, a pasta dish made with honey.
Olives, figs, and other side dishes.
As no feast is complete without dessert, no Saint Joseph’s altar would be finished without the flourish of sweet items. There is typically a plethora of cakes, biscotti and cookies, many of which are embellished with almonds.
Two particularly traditional desserts found at St. Joseph’s tables are sfingi–fried pieces of bread dough rolled in sugar—and zeppoli–a pastry shaped like a donut, fried or baked, and filled with a sweet pastry crème, then garnished with a dusting of powdered sugar and a maraschino cherry.
Beautiful as the Saint Joseph’s Day Table is to behold, it is a work of art that is also practical, meant to not only feed not only those present, but also the absent hungry.
The table’s breads, cookies and pastries are sold to raise funds for the parish or for charity. Donations of other food items, as well as cash donations, are encouraged. Even if celebrated privately, at home, a plan should be in place to make sure that the entire celebration and charitable nature of the event serve those most in need.
Other Interesting St. Joseph’s Table Traditions:
No cheese is eaten on St. Joseph’s day, a remembrance that during the famine that spawned this devotion, cheese was not available. Pasta is not sprinkled with grated cheese, but in its place a traditional mixture of tasted dry bread crumbs with fresh sardines and fennel sauce is used.
Blessed fava beans are often given out at St. Joseph’s Tables. Once considered cattle feed, fava beans were the one food which survived the Sicilian drought, sustained the people, and saved them from starvation.
The use of bread crumbs in food preparation is said to represent saw dust in commemoration of St. Joseph’s work as a carpenter.
St. Joseph’s Day is also the day that the “swallows return to Capistrano.”
Some of the most typical “artistic” breads are:
- The Latin Cross: The ultimate symbol of our Lord’s suffering and salvation.
- The Bambino: The baby Jesus to whom St. Joseph was foster father.
- St. Joseph’s Staff: Legend has it that St. Joseph’s staff blossomed into a lily, a symbol both of life and death.
- St. Joseph’s Purse: This symbol is a reminder to give alms to the poor during Lent.
- A Sheaf of Wheat: Wheat is a reminder that, when a single, tiny grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it bears much more food at harvest time—and that the early spring harvest of greens is almost here.
- St. Joseph himself: He is always represented in profile and hunched over with a cane, symbolizing that he was (according to tradition) an old man, while Mary was a much younger woman.
- St. Joseph’s Beard: This is actually just the Sheaf of Wheat turned upside down, but young children delight when their fathers and grandfathers hold their beard up to their face. It is another reminder of Joseph’s wisdom and old age.
- Heart: A symbol of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary that flourished throughout Italy in general and Sicily in particular in the 19th century.
- The Crown of Thorns: This is in remembrance of Christ’s passion and a reminder that, despite the day’s feasting among Lent’s fasting, Lent is still a season of sorrow—but of hope, too!
If your parish already has a St. Joseph’s table tradition, or if you’d like to share your experience, or if you’d like help starting this tradition in your parish in this “Year of St. Joseph”, please contact Tom Sperrazzo (firstname.lastname@example.org).
There are many photos and videos online depicting St. Joseph table festivities, both elegant and simple. Here are a few helpful videos: