San Giuseppe maintains a distinctive role in the spiritual lives of all Roman Catholics as the husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. The Patron Saint of fathers, carpenters and social justice, St. Joseph holds a special place in the hearts and souls of Italians and Italian Americans.
A severe drought and subsequently famine, ravaged the island of Sicily during the Middle Ages. The people of the island prayed to their patron saint to bring them rain, promising a feast of devotion if their prayers were answered. The rain came and the famine was averted. A large banquet was prepared in St. Joseph’s honor. The fava bean was the crop which saved the population from starvation and is always a prominent and traditional part of St. Joseph’s Day altars and traditions. The Sicilians began a tradition of giving gifts of food to the poor and over the years the Feast Day of San Giuseppe, March 19, became more ritualized, until a symbolic pair of underprivileged children were chosen to dine at the overwhelming tables of food, sweets and drink that we are familiar with today.
The original reverential gratitude after the miracle of San Giuseppe included huge banquet tables that were set up in public. Poor people were invited to come and eat as much as they wanted, a welcome relief from the rigors of the usual Lenten fast. San Giuseppe has always been known to solve household crises for southern Italians, who thanked the saint with the great table full of food.
Today, special foods, linens, flowers and statuary adorn altars devoted to San Giuseppe, built with three steps to represent the Holy Trinity. Generosity marks La Festa di San Giuseppe, as it did the character of Joseph himself. In many nations, it’s a day of sharing with the poor and needy and nowhere is this better accomplished than in the nation that perhaps loves San Giuseppe the most – Italy.
Residents of many Italian villages, especially in Sicily, contribute to a communal Tavolata di San Giuseppe, often spread out in a central piazza as an offering for favors received from prayers to this kindly saint. Villagers gather in the piazza to recreate the historic tradition of La Festa di San Giuseppe. Three residents are chosen to dress in character representing the Holy Family, while the others represent orphans, widows or beggars.
A variety of traditional foods appear on an Italian Tavolata di San Giuseppe and variations on dishes occur from village to village, but the basic elements of a classic San Giuseppe-inspired meal include a minestrone, sweets and bread. The soup is made from completely vegetarian ingredients – usually whatever is handy. Although all kinds of lentils and dried beans are eaten, grated Italian cheese is not included. Instead, the soup is served with toasted breadcrumbs.
The multitude of dolce served is remarkable – the patriarch is also said to be the Patron Saint of pastry cooks. Regardless of the variety of sweets, the tables always include zeppole and sfinci. The fried pastries vary from region to region. Some are dipped in honey, some coated in powdered sugar, others with cinnamon. Sometimes they are filled with cream, sometimes dry, but it is not La Festa di San Giuseppe without them.
Also offered on the great tables are intricately detailed breads. Some are crafted in the shapes of baskets or treasure chests, representative of the cornucopia of foods for the feasting. Others are made in the form of wreaths, often with a star-shaped twist placed in the middle to represent the Star of Bethlehem. Still others are made into a shepherd’s crooked staff to indicate Joseph’s role as Protector of the Holy Flock.
After a priest blesses the feast, everyone shouts, “Viva la tavola di San Giuse!” and dining commences. At the end of the meal, every guest is given something to take home, often fava beans, which to this day represent good luck to the people of Sicily.