by Andrew Koslosky KGCHS, Contributing Writer

On March 19 each year, Catholics celebrate the Solemnity of St. Joseph, protector of the family and patron of the Universal Church.

The importance of this day in Catholic tradition extends throughout the world. The day took on important significance on the isle of Sicily. It is in Sicily that a famous custom began called … The St. Joseph’s Table.

The origins of St. Joseph’s Table can be traced to the Middle Ages.

According to one tradition, during a famine brought on by a severe drought, starving villagers, many of them farmers, prayed to St. Joseph, asking for his intercession. St. Joseph helped them to survive by providing the fava bean. It was the only crop that would grow in such harsh conditions. So bountiful did the crop become that the famine ended.

To offer their thanks, the people prepared a special feast, inviting the poor and less fortunate among them to share in a special meal.

The tradition of The St. Joseph’s Table was born and has been celebrated all over the world ever since.  Of course, we Christians will tell you that devotion to him does not end there. St. Joseph is the patron of laborers, carpenters, fathers, the unemployed, expectant mothers, families, immigrants, and travelers.

Declared patron of the Universal Church in 1870, many other countries such as the Americas, Canada, Croatia, and the Philippines, among others, claim him as their patron.  The causes for which he intercedes are numerous, including selling homes and ensuring a happy death. In fact, in theory, there’s little St. Joseph can’t do.

Despite his popularity, we know little about St. Joseph other than what we are told in scripture.

Born in Bethlehem of a royal Jewish lineage, he lived a simple life as a skilled carpenter.  As the cornerstone of the Holy Family, he served as a protector to Mary and a mentor to the young Jesus. He likely died before Jesus entered public ministry.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph is referred to as “a righteous man.”

We know him to be a man of great moral compass and courage.  In Sicily, The festival honoring St. Joseph begins with a ritual that is called tupa-tupa, or “knock-knock.”

A group of poor or orphaned children, usually selected to portray the Holy Family, relive the journey through the Holy Land for food and shelter. The children approach the first door and knock.

When asked who is there, they exclaim, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph! We seek food and shelter.” The owner then responds, “There is no room for you here.”

The children then proceed to the second home, where the ritual is repeated, to the same response: “We have no room for you here.”

Finally, the children approach the third house where, after they knock, the host replies: “Welcome to this house. The table is set. The food is prepared. Come in and honor us with your presence.”

The children portraying the Holy Family, enter the house and the bountiful feast begins with the cry, “Viva la tavola di San Giuseppe!” (“Long live the table of St. Joseph!”).  This cry is heard throughout the day. All others at the dinner must wait until the Holy Family has finished their meal before they are allowed to eat.

Here in the United States, The St. Joseph’s table, also known as an “altar”, is traditionally composed of three ascending tables, or “steps,” representing both the Holy Trinity and the ascent from earth to heaven.

At the center of the last and highest table is a statue of St. Joseph or a picture of the Holy Family. Palms and lily plants typically adorn each of the tables. Vigil candles, usually green, brown and dark yellow, accompany the flowers, representing the colors of St. Joseph.

Breads are formed and baked into the shapes of various Catholic symbols, such as a St. Joseph’s staff and various carpentry tools, a chalice, cross, monstrance, dove, fish or heart. Some of these elaborate breads are not eaten as part of the meal, but later given to the poor.

Bottles of wine are also placed upon the altar, as well as assorted fruits such as grapes and lemons.The various culinary treats that form the meal are each blessed by a priest; the food is never to be thrown away or wasted. Because the feast of St. Joseph falls during the Lenten season, meat is not a part of the meal.

Away from the table, the traditional main course is a pasta dish containing sardines, tomatoes and fresh fennel, sprinkled with breadcrumbs to represent the sawdust of a carpenter. There are several names for this dish, such as pasta con sarde, pasta con mudrica, or as my mother called it, “Pasta Milanese.”

It was my favorite pasta dish of all time. My mother would also make it for my birthday every year. That was the best birthday gift of all.

In some countries, various soups made of lentil and vegetable dishes such as stuffed artichokes, broccoli and fennel, as well as the all-important fava bean, were often served roasted and lightly salted, to accompany the pasta dish. As with
all things Italian, the meal is followed by a tasty assortment of desserts: various cookies, zeppole and the famous St. Joseph sfinge, which is a round cream puff filled with ricotta cheese or cream and adorned with candied fruits.

An important mark of a religious feast is its social dimension. St. Joseph’s Table is a celebration of family, in honor of the protector of families. It is not merely a private celebration: In addition to private altars in one’s home, public altars have been traditionally built at local churches celebrating around the world.

In New Orleans, for example, the first St. Joseph altar was built on the front steps of St. Joseph Church on Tulane Avenue in 1967.

The feast has been celebrated by Italians in New Orleans ever since.  St. Joseph’s Table is an expression of gratitude for the simplest things in life, such as a crop of fava beans that grew at a time when the fields were otherwise dry and barren.

Sicilians often call fava beans “lucky beans.” Those who keep the fava bean in their pantry are said never to run out of food. It is quite fitting, then, that the Solemnity of St. Joseph occurs during Lent, a time of reflection, humility and alms-giving. At a time of mounting disasters, social upheaval, and deep division, reflecting on the life of St. Joseph offers us ways to rise above despair and doubt, and help those in need. He urges us to be humble and empathetic while being able to see the divinity in all of us.

If that isn’t deserving of a Feast day, and a St. Joseph sfinge cake… I don’t know what it is. Peace and Happy St. Joseph’s Day…