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Catholic Activity: St. Joseph's Table: An Age-Old Tradition

A short description of the history, significance and layout of the St. Joseph Table or St. Joseph Altar.

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An Age-Old Italian Tradition

Saint Joseph is one of the most beloved saints among Italian-Americans. As the patron of workers and the protector of the family, he is honored with a feast on March 19.

According to legend, there was a famine in Sicily many centuries ago. The villagers prayed to St. Joseph, foster-father of the Infant Savior, and asked his intercession before the throne of God. Their prayers were answered. With the ending of the dreadful famine, a special feast of thanksgiving was held in commemoration of the Saint. This celebration became tradition. Wealth families prepared huge buffets. They then invited the less fortunate people of the village, especially the homeless and sick.

The celebration begins with a religious tableau. Selected villagers portray an elderly man, a lovely young woman, and a little child. The three are seated at the head table and remain there during the early part of the festivity. Others accompanying this "Holy Family" are twelve men or boys, representing the Apostles and other children, attired as angels. The village priest blesses the food, then the "Holy Family" is served first by the host and hostess.

All are free to come and go as they wish. The guests may eat what they choose and as much as pleases them. The festival lasts most of the day and well into the night. When all have been fed, they go on their way with thankful hearts and take the blessing of the host and hostess with them.

The effect of the table design is dignified, solemn, yet festive, grand and inspiring. Much symbolism is contained in its shape and decoration. The "steps" represent the ascent from earth to heaven. On the topmost step is a statue of St. Joseph or a picture of the Holy Family. White linen tablecloths cover the table. Vigil lights of green, brown and deep yellow, representing St. Joseph's attire, are profusely placed. Palms placed nearby and around the room, as well as lily plants and white carnations give the table softness and the scents together with incense used in the opening of the ceremony are suggestive of the fragrance of heaven and the sweetness of salvation.

The food dishes represent the harvest, the created beauties of the world. Breads are baked in shapes of a staff, a carpenter's implement, a hand, the cross and animals close to the Infant Child at birth. These shapes represent St. Joseph and the life of Christ. Minestras, very thick soups, are made of lentils, favas and other types of beans, together with escarole, broccoli or cauliflower. Other vegetables, celery, fennel stalks, boiled and stuffed artichokes are also served.

No cheese is eaten on St. Joseph's day. The spaghetti is not sprinkled with grated Incanestrato, but in its place a traditional mixture of tasted dry bread crumbs with fresh sardines and fennel sauce is used. A dish of "sweet macaroni" with honey sauce is also served.

Then, the special dessert without which no St. Joseph's Day buffet could ever be called by that name. It is St. Joseph's Sfinge: a large round cream puff filled with ricotta (Italian cottage cheese) and topped with red cherries and glazed orange slices. Many dessert cookies are embellished with almonds. The almond tree is characteristic among the flora of the Mediterranean and a profoundly sacred symbol to those of Jewish, Moslem and Christian faiths alike.

All are free to come and go as they wish. The guests may eat what they choose and as much as pleases them. The festival lasts most of the day and well into the night. When all have been fed, they go on their way with thankful hearts and take the blessing of the host and hostess with them.

It is also customary for the village officials to arrange a public buffet in St. Joseph's honor. The banquet table invariably stands in the piazza--public square--opposite the doors of the cathedral. The table is usually built around two sides of the piazza in the form of a right angle. These village tables in the public squares may not be as elaborately decorated as those in the homes, but they sage beneath the weight of choice foods and wines contributed by the wealthy villagers. All come to this public table at some time during the day to pay homage to the great saint.

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