March 20, 2013: The Italian Traditions of the “Festive” Feast Day of St. Joseph

~ by Mary Galvano

Just recently a friend and I were wishing each other a happy St. Patrick’s Day when at the end of our conversation I said, “well now we have the Feast of St. Joseph to celebrate.” My friend looked at me and asked what the Feast of St. Joseph was. I was a little surprised especially being that this person is Italian.

St. Patrick may get all the attention with the famous parades and green beer, but for some Italian Americans (including me) it means only two more days until St. Joseph’s Day. Growing up in an Italian-American family, St. Joseph’s Day was always one of my favorite holidays – I could take the day off from school and we visited relatives and friends and prepared for a feast! The tradition was brought over with the first immigrants and is still celebrated in both the old Italian American neighborhoods in the big cities and households nationwide. Every March 19th, Italian Americans across the country will be sitting down to one of my family’s favorite feasts.

St. Joseph was “only” the foster father of our Lord Jesus Christ. He had the great honor to have died in the presence of Our Lady and his Son, which is why he is the patron of a holy death. During his life he was given the great responsibility of caring for and protecting the Virgin Mary, the Mother of all Israel and her Son, Jesus, and because of this St. Joseph is considered the patron and protector of the entire Church.

For most Italians, especially Sicilians, this feast day is one of the biggest of all. For Italian-American families such as mine celebrations are huge. I remember my mother preparing enough food to supply a cruise ship and inviting what seemed like the whole town for authentic Italian food and lots of Italian music and dancing. And there was always a priest present!

St. Joseph’s Day is a big Feast for Italians because in the Middle Ages, God, through St. Joseph’s intercessions, saved the Sicilians from a very serious drought. So in his honor, the custom is for all to wear red, in the same way that green is worn on St. Patrick’s Day.

On this feast day, after Mass (at least in parishes with large Italian populations), a big altar (“la tavola di San Giuse” or “St. Joseph’s Table”) is laden with food contributed by everyone. Because of the day usually being during Lent different Italian regions celebrate this day differently, but all involve special meatless foods: minestrone, pasta with breadcrumbs (the breadcrumbs symbolize the sawdust that would have covered St. Joseph’s floor), seafood, Sfinge di San Giuseppe, and, always, fava beans, which are considered “lucky” because during the drought, the fava thrived while other crops failed.
The table (which is always blessed by a priest) will be in three tiers, symbolizing the Most Holy Trinity. The top tier will hold a statue of St. Joseph surrounded by flowers and greenery. The other tiers might hold, in addition to the food: flowers (especially lilies); candles; figurines and symbolic breads and pastries shaped like a monstrance, chalices, fishes, doves, baskets, St. Joseph’s staff, lilies, the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts, carpentry tools, etc.; 12 fishes symbolizing the 12 Apostles; wine symbolizing the miracle at Cana; pineapple symbolizing hospitality; lemons for “luck”; bread and wine (symbolizing the Last Supper); and pictures of the dead. There will also be a basket in which the faithful place prayer petitions.

The cry “Viva la tavola di San Giuse!” begins the feasting and is heard throughout the day. When the eating is done, the St. Joseph’s altar is smashed, and then three children dressed as the Holy Family will knock on three doors, asking for shelter. They will be refused at the first two, and welcomed at the third, in memory of the Holy Family’s seeking of hospitality just before Christ was born. This re-enactment is called “Tupa Tupa,” meaning “Knock Knock.”

The day ends with each participant taking home a bag that might be filled with bread, fruit, pastries, cookies, a medal of St. Joseph, a Holy Card and/or a blessed fava bean. Keeping your “lucky bean,” is a reminder to pray to St. Joseph. The Litany of St. Joseph would be most appropriate.

If you missed your St. Joseph’s feast day celebration this year there is always next year to prepare for it. It doesn’t have to be as elaborate as the descriptions above, but at least get your bread blest for the table. In the meantime you can still honor St. Joseph throughout the year by praying the Litany of St. Joseph and / or praying the Novena prayer to St. Joseph. There have been countless miracles including miracles within my own family through this novena.

Oh, St. Joseph, whose protection is so great, so strong, so prompt before the throne of God. I place in you all my interests and desires. Oh, St. Joseph, do assist me by your powerful intercession, and obtain for me from your divine Son all spiritual blessings, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. So that, having engaged here below your heavenly power, I may offer my thanksgiving and homage to the most loving of Fathers.

Oh, St. Joseph, I never weary of contemplating you, and Jesus asleep in your arms; I dare not approach while He reposes near your heart. Press Him in my name and kiss His fine head for me and ask him to return the Kiss when I draw my dying breath. St. Joseph, Patron of departing souls – Pray for me.

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Mary Galvano-Bajohr is a singer/songwriter, LPGA golf instructor, speaker and author. On the golf course she is a dedicated professional, but go to a Yankee game, a Pro-life event or other venue and you just might see her step up to the microphone and sing the National Anthem or the Ave Maria.

Visit Mary’s website at www.marygalvano.com.

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