Lydia Fish

Joseph, the husband of the Virgin Mary and foster father of Jesus, was a descendant of David and by trade a carpenter. His flight into Egypt with his family to escape Herod has long been a popular subject in folklore, literature and art. He is often depicted as an old man carrying a staff. Joseph is the patron saint of carpenters and of the Sicilian capital city, Palermo. In addition, undoubtably because of Jesus' promise to the dying Joseph that he would bless those who aided the wretched, the poor, the widows and orphans, he is also the patron saint of the poor. This last legend, as do so many others concerning Joseph, appears in the Coptic History of Joseph the Carpenter, a book that was popular in the Eastern Church.

In the Roman Catholic Church, March 19 is celebrated as a feast of the first class, the principal feast of St. Joseph, spouse of the Blessed Virgin, Confessor and Patron of the Universal Church. It was not widely celebrated until its introduction at Rome in about 1479 by Sixtus IV, but had spread to at least seventy known European cities by the time of the Council of Trent. The tradition of the Saint Joseph's table, sometimes known as the St. Joseph's altar, dates back to the sixteenth century in Sicily and continues to be celebrated in Sicilian-American enclaves in Texas, Louisiana, California, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and New York.

St. Joseph is the patron saint of Buffalo and his feast is extremely popular with Sicilian-Americans in the city and elsewhere on the Niagara Frontier. He is in charge of looking after family finances; unpaid bills are sometimes placed under his statue to remind him that they need paying and recently families have taken to burying his statue in the yard of a house which is for sale in a slow real estate market. Although the plays and processions in his honor described in Detroit and southern California early in the century are unknown on the Niagara Frontier, the custom of giving a table is found in homes, churches, clubs, schools, nursing homes, and restaurants. Traditionally, the table is given in fulfillment of a vow to the saint and originally a large part of the food was given to the poor people of the neighborhood. As an act of humility, the person giving the table might beg for the money to prepare it; one of my students ran across this custom in Rochester about twelve years ago. Today the domestic table is prepared for friends and relatives, but the public tables often charge a small admission fee which is donated to charity. The lavish St. Joseph's table for many years was is presented at Buffalo State College every year to faculty, staff and students as an offering from the Italian workers employed by the Food Service charged a fee to cover expenses, but the considerable labor of preparing the feast was donated. The work of preparing the public tables is often done in a communal kitchen, or everyone brings a dish. When a family gives a table, friends often come by early to help prepare the food and bring a donation of bread, pastries or wine.

The table, or a separate altar, is elaborately decorated with statues and holy pictures, flowers, lace-trimmed cloths, fruit, bread and candles. The food, which is prepared for days in advance, includes fish (often salt cod), cheese, zucchini, fennel or artichoke omelets (usually served cold), various pastas, salads and vegetable dishes, fruit, wine, and a large selection of pastries. The most typical food is the St. Joseph's bread, usually ordered well in advance from an Italian bakery, which is baked in the forms of crosses, crowns, St. Joseph's staff, and his beard.

If the table is prepared at home the family's parish priest is usually asked to bless the table; the public tables are also blessed by a priest from a neighboring church. Traditionally children from the family or a local orphanage dressed as angels, saints or the Holy Family were seated first and took the first helping from every dish. Old family pictures of solemn children dressed in white robes with tinsel haloes and wings standing by the St. Joseph's table are common in Buffalo and the custom is still occasionally found.

It is not uncommon for a domestic table to feed fifty or more people and some families invite the entire neighborhood. Each guest is given food to take away, usually a small loaf of bread and an orange. Oranges, like the breads, are an extremely important part of the feast and are featured prominently in the decoration of the table and the altar.


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Copyright Lydia Fish, 1991