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The medieval town of Torrita di Siena in Tuscany, long known for its carpentry work, has always had a special bond with St. Joseph. It celebrates his day in a unique way, with a donkey race. The humble and tireless animal exemplifies both the work ethic of the town’s people and the nature of San Giuseppe.
In Italy, Saint Joseph’s day is celebrated with flowers, altars, celebrations and wine throughout Italy; but it is also a day where everyone, regardless of religious backgrounds, celebrate their own fathers as Festa del Pappa. While it is a day to celebrate St. Joseph, the day has become representative for all the fathers in Italy and they too, are celebrated on the occasion. Many local customs are associated with the date, the most widespread include a great flurry of writing among children who are busy with special cards and poems for their fathers. Gift giving is widespread, with ties, wallets and socks being the most common presents (just like in the U.S.).
Italians love to celebrate and years ago, March 19th was a national holiday. Today, St. Joseph’s Day/Father’s Day is no exception. In Florence and Rome, this festivity is marked with several days of live music and dancing and of course, food and drink. Artichokes come to market in March in Italy, so eating artichokes stuffed with a breadcrumb mixture is a traditional way to celebrate; the breadcrumbs of course, represent sawdust, honoring St. Joseph’s life as a carpenter. On St. Joseph’s day, tradition calls for sprinkling breadcrumbs on pasta dishes rather than cheese. Then there is also Pane di San Giuseppe in which bread dough is fashioned into crosses and other symbolic shapes.
Even though Festa del Pappa falls during the week, more often than not, families still enjoy a special meal together and traditional San Giuseppe desserts. The sweets vary from region to region, but they are always the highlight of the meal, especially since the day of celebration always takes place during Lent. In some places, people light bonfires or present pageants to celebrate this day and traditional donkey races are still held in some parts of Italy. Everyone has heard of the famous Palio of Siena horse race, but in the town of Torrita di Siena, just outside of Siena, a different palio is staged each year with donkeys, rather than horses. The pageantry and spectacle is fantastic, with hundreds dressed in fine medieval garments. Cheers erupt when the rope is dropped, signaling the start of the race. From that point onward, it is a show of great fun, since no matter how high the stakes, no one can look majestic racing a donkey!
Although there is nothing like mamma in an Italian household, fathers are the pillars of a family and deservedly have this day dedicated to them. La famiglia is very important to Italians and so March 19th is a day to remember the key role that fathers play.