One of my favorite events is taking place tomorrow -- the viewing of St. Joseph altars. Casimira always makes sure I get some lucky beans and holy cards, since I can't go in person. Although the custom was imported by Sicilian immigrants, today it is happily participated in by people of all backgrounds.
My friend and I will be visiting about four or so of these altars today.At least two of them are ones I go to every year and have come to know the people. It's such an incredibly rich experience to be welcomed into someone else's home and view these lovingly,beautiful altars. People go all out and prepare for days,sometimes weeks I would imagine.There were many more preKatrina but slowly they are making a resurgence. Announcements are placed in the classified section of the newspaper.
Today is St. Joseph’s Day. St. Joseph is the patron saint of Italy and it’s actually a much bigger deal than that other saint’s day where everybody wears green.
Italians celebrate St. Joseph’s day in two ways: with special foods (usually something sweet) and community acts of charity to alleviate hunger. (The intervention of St. Joseph is reputed to have delivered the Sicilians from famine.)
So, first, in the break room, I have a loaf of home-made St. Joseph’s bread. It’s a sweet bread with fennel seeds. Help yourself. Second, I am making a contribution to the Arkansas Rice Depot in honor of St. Joseph and I'll happily accept any other contributions.
I take judicial notice because of warm memories of my hometown, Lake Charles, La., which had a large population of Sicilian-Americans, many of whom built elaborate St. Joseph's Day altars at their homes. Friends visited the altars and feasted on vats of food bubbling inside the homes (from stuffed artichokes to Cajun dirty rice and potato salad), but the publicly displayed altars were a means to gather food to take to the needy, along with other contributions. The Tremonte family opened their old Railroad Avenue bakery once a year to make hundreds of loaves of braided St. Joseph's bread, a sweet, soft loaf that we bought in bulk for our freezer (along with the fennel-scented sausage the Italian grocers nearby produced). Happy memories. Good people. Good causes. Good food.
My dear friend and I went out this afternoon to visit three St. Joseph Day Altars here in New Orleans. One was in a large church in the Garden District/Irish Channel corridor of Uptown,and,the other two were in private homes nearby,but,more in the Irish Channel. Here is a sampling of this oh so traditional feast day and the elaborate,painstaking labor of love so many people here dedicate to this time honored tradition.
A trillion thanks for those pictures! Gad, the three altars are so different, yet all are so wonderfully and movingly within the tradition. I see the classic New Orleans stuffed artichoke on two of them. (& also spy a Niño Dios in the first fish pic!)
I'm not really sure,perhaps Bixa knows more on this,but,I believe this celebratory tradition is unique to New Orleans and neighboring cities and towns. Bixa's mention of St. Charles, LA gives a general idea of how more widespread the tradition is than I had originally thought given the distance between the 2 cities.
While each altar may have their own uniqueness,all share in commonality several symbolic themes all strictly adhered to. All of them are 3 tiered in structure representing the Blessed Trinity. All of the items on the altars from candles to food, (specially shaped breads and cakes all symbolizing various religious representations) flowers and trinkets,statues etc. are blessed by a priest in a special ceremony the afternoon before an altar is "broken",(open to the public). All donations,food,and money contributed by visitors are collected for the poor. There is never personal profit gained from the altar. At the place where an altar is erected, a fresh green branch is placed over the door. This indicates that the public is invited to be involved in the ceremony and to share the food. The altars displayed in private homes are in honor of some dearly departed family or loved one. The church altars are in honor of the many dearly departed members of the parishioners. The altars take several weeks to be constructed and decorated from the construction of to the food preparation and decoration of. Meat is not represented or served as the feast day falls during the Lenten season. Visitors to the altars are given small bags with a blessed medal of St. Joseph and or a holy card,a blessed fava bean also known as a" lucky bean",representative of the role the fava bean played during one of Sicily's severe famines. The fava bean thrived while other plants failed. Legend has it that the person who carries a "lucky bean" will never be without coins and also serves as a token and a reminder to pray to St. Joseph.
Casi thank you for your detailed explanation of the St. Joseph altars. I was going to post some questions today, but your last post answered them all.
It does make me wonder if the idea for our Church bazaar's, penny sales, craft shows came from these altar feasts? I would join my grandmother, aunts or friends parents to these church activities and remember all the saran wrapped plates piled with goodies, buns and breads. All the money would be used for food programs and other church charities.
I enjoy how simple but yet elaborate these altars are.
I believe this celebratory tradition is unique to New Orleans and neighboring cities and towns.
It's not unique to the NO area, but definitely far more prevalent there than anywhere else in the US. If you google st. joseph's day altar, the hits are overwhelmingly about New Orleans. I think that's because so many people from the northwest of Sicily settled in & around NO. I also googled areas where I know there are people of Sicilian descent from that area and sure enough, there are St. Joseph altars there, too -- Natchez and the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and Baltimore, Maryland, for instance.
There were hits for altars all over the US & in Canada, but many of them seemed to be specific to one family or because a St. Joseph's parish took up the custom.
I imagine that many traditions still existing in the US & Canada that are attributed to a country -- in this case, Italy -- are actually from a specific region that, as in the case of Sicily, wasn't even always politically part of that country.
O my giddy aunt! That is absolutely awesome in its spread out glory I cast my eyes over the lovingly prepared products of many hours hard work and the first thing that shouted 'hello!' was that magnificent croquembouche!
There must be lady (and gentlemen ) bakers that look forward to this wonderful day each year. Thank you for getting the go ahead to show them here!!
WOW!!! Thank you Bixa and Paula!! Quite the spread indeed and so much work!!!!. To think that this is all going on within the Metro New Orleans area on the same day boggles my mind and truly attests to how roots run deep here in terms of community,commitment,work and sharing. I go the same 2 or 3 every year (any more than that would be sensory overload for me) and see familiar faces,especially the ones in private homes,people who I would otherwise not necessarily have contact with during the rest of the year. It's also become multi generational in many families and altars are put up by children and grandchildren to honor their parents and grandparents who had altars years ago.
Interesting about the other parts of the North America who acknowledge it in some fashion. I knew that there was a Polish nod of sorts to it but not to the degree of the Sicilian influence. Here's a cake at one of the altars with a clearly Polish family name.
Thanks again Paula for bringing a piece of da West Bank on here!!
Here's a great example of "you can take the girl out of New Orleans, but you can't take ... etc" ~~ Yesterday, as part of my ongoing fight with my internet provider, I was informed that a technician is scheduled to visit me on Tuesday. My immediate thought was, "Oh no -- that's St. Joseph's day!"
My absolute favorite sweet thing from the St. Joseph's table is the cuccudati. My grandmother made them & called them cats-in-the-sack. She didn't ice hers, which is as it should be. I'm not on my computer right now, but will post her recipe later.
Often the dough is cut into openwork designs or even pictures to show the dark filling contrasting with the pale dough.
It's a beautiful Spring day here. I just spoke with my itinerant altar companion, (with a near 2 year old in tow, should add a new and interesting dimension!!). Also, taking our house guest who has never been. I'm going to take pics but still haven't figured out how to post pics on this new computer.I will do my best. Most will assuredly be repetitive anyway, so, hope not to disappoint. Thanks for the interest good people! I hope your cousin Paula is able to share with us again this year Bixa!!
I belong to a Sicilian genealogy group on facebook. This picture was posted by Jo Saunders & perfectly illustrates the beautiful cutwork sometimes done on cuccidate:
And this fabulous recipe was just posted by the group's administrator. I can only get cultivated fennel, but must try this. What would be a good substitute for the fresh sardines? Pasta chi sardiclick pic for recipe
Sadly, I have no pics to post. The day was a nightmare in that my friend not only had his 2 year old son with him AND another friend of his with his 2 year old daughter. The first place we went to wasn't going to be open until 5p.m. The next place had a Mass being heard at the time...then, the kids began their whining and carrying on so we aborted the whole thing by this point. I did go to Broccato's (a wonderful Italian bakery) and they had a small altar set up there so I was able to get my cookies and lucky fava beans for myself and some loved ones here.