I can't see Saint Joseph and not see my father. I can't pray to him and not think of my godfather, who is named for him. I can't write this blog post and not mention my husband, who worked in a nursery for years. Perhaps, if you're reading this, it's the same way for you: this blend of the living and the dead, the familial and the famous.
The Bible doesn't give us much to work with here. He's there when Jesus is born, but gone by the time Jesus dies. This has led some to speculate that he was much older than Mary when they wed. And they wed, it should oft be repeated, even though she was already pregnant and he knew the child wasn't his.
We usually say he was a carpenter. But James Martin writes that tekton, the Greek work given for Saint Joseph's profession, is better translated as "day laborer": less of a skilled tradesman, more of a general handyman. Sometimes, I like to think of him as a giustacofane, a wandering fixer of broken things, a vocation that doesn't really exist anymore. I like to think of him wandering into the homes of his devotees and fixing the things in their lives that are broken.
Other times, I like to imagine him various professions: as the baker, the butcher, the men who work at the groceria across the street from our home and ask me "where you been?" whenever I get back from a trip. They know I was gone because they're there from open to close every day so they can put food on their table and several other tables back in Mexico. In Southern Italy and Sicily, he is associated with the back-breaking labor of farmers who guard the fertility of the land, just as Saint Joseph guarded Mary's fertility by caring for her during her pregnancy and childbirth.
In short, I'd attribute to him any vocation that anyone has ever performed in order to care for their family.
Carpenter's tools, a staff with lily blossoms.
According to Catholic tradition, Saints Anne and Joachim were very picky when choosing a husband for their daughter Mary. When Saint Joseph came to court her, the staff he carried with him miraculously flowered. That was how they knew he was a worthy suitor. Most Catholics will say this was a sign of his sexual purity. I say, if you look at a man carrying a rod that performs miracles and think "He must have been a virgin!", you are probably not going to get much out of this blog.
Fathers, men who care for children, workers, immigrants; prayed to for employment, real estate (most famously, his statue is buried upside-down when selling a house), against doubt, and for a happy death.
Saint Joseph is celebrated as the patron of workers on May 1. The May Day celebration has ancient pagan roots and modern associations with labor rights. Many Italian American societies dedicated to the saints began as mutual benefit societies: groups of workers who would pool their resources to take care of each others' families in case of injury or death.
There is power in a factory, power in the land
Power in the hands of a worker
But it all amounts to nothing if together we don't stand
There is power in a union
But today, we will focus on his March 19 feast day, which has special prominence in Italy, Sicily, and Italian America.
Some of the most famous altars dedicated to Saint Joseph are found in Salemi, Sicily. Men and women spend five days a week for a whole month building these ornate altars. The men build the frames and cover them in lush vegetation, including seasonal flowers and citrus fruits. The women bake breads in special shapes. All of the gold you see in the picture below is bread. It's truly breathtaking.
Saint Joseph's altars typically have three levels, representing either the persons of the Holy Trinity or of the Holy Family, depending on who you ask. The large breads in the center are dedicated to the Madonna, Baby Jesus, and Saint Joseph.
The tradition of building altars to Saint Joseph continues in Italian American communities in the United States, the most elaborate of which are found in New Orleans. A good overview of the symbolism is available here. Every year, the Archdiocese of New Orleans publishes a complete listing of the altars along with the hours they are available for public visitation.
This is, to me, the radical heart of Saint Joseph's Day. Three children are chosen to play the parts of the Madonna, Jesus, and Joseph. They come to a house and knock on the door.
- Who is there?
- Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.
- What do you want?
- We seek food and shelter.
- There is no room for you here.
The refugees go to the next house, and the same scene repeats. So they go to a third house. Inside of this house, an altar to Saint Joseph has been prepared.
- We seek food and shelter.
- Welcome, welcome! The food is prepared and the table is set. Come in and join us!
The children are served a taste of every dish that has been prepared and left out on the altar. Once they have sampled each dish, the rest of the guests can enjoy the meal. This ritual reflects a belief common to many religious traditions in the Mediterranean world, which is that hospitality must be shared with strangers, who may very well be spirits, gods, or angels in disguises:
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. (Hebrews 13:1)
Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. (Romans 12:13)
For the ancient Greeks, this concept was known as "theoxenia", and it appears in several myths in which a stranger (xenos) turns out to be a god (theos) in disguise. Laws of hospitality obliged the Greeks to welcome strangers and travelers into their homes, where they fed and sheltered. Guests, in turn, were obliged to respect their hosts and give them a gift if they had one to give.
Songs & Prayers
A Sicilian Rosary to San Giuseppe
This rosary can be prayed on a standard set of rosary beads, with the posta in place of the Pater Noster at the large bead and the Grani in place of the Ave Maria on the smaller beads. At the end of the decade, pray one Pater Noster and one Ave Maria.
San Giusippuzzu fustivu patri
fustivu virgini comu la Matri
Maria la rosa,
Giuseppi lu gigghiu
datini aiutu, riparu e cunsigghiu.
Scura ora e aggiorna dumani
la pruvvidenza nn'aviti a mannari.
Aspettu la pruvvidenza
di Gesu, Maria, e Giuseppi.
Tutti ludamu l'Eternu, cantu:
lu Patri, lu Figghiu e lu Spiritu Santu.
E sempri amatu e binidittu sia
lu nomu di Gèsu, Giuseppi, e Maria.
Saint Joseph, foster father
foster virgin like the Mother.
Mary the rose,
Joseph the Lily,
give us help, refuge, and advice.
It's dark now and it will be light tomorrow,
providence you must send me.
I wait for the providence
of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.
All praise the Eternal, I sing:
the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And always beloved and blessed be
the name of Jesus, Joseph, and Mary.
Many saints have associations with seasonal foods in Southern Italy and Sicily. Because March 19 falls within Lent, when Catholics would traditionally abstain from meat as part of the purificatory process leading up to Easter, Saint Joseph's traditional foods are vegetarian. There's an emphasis on seasonal delicacies, such as snails and sardines.
It's also interesting to note that many of the foods associated with Saint Joseph in Sicily aren't indigenous to the island, but were brought there by Arabs in the 10th century.
Then Jesus declared, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. (John 6:35)
If that's all you've got, you can live on wheat flour and water together mixed together for a while. Then you'll die of malnourishment before too long. But if you take that same wheat flour mixed with water, allow it to ferment naturally, and bake it into bread, you can live off of that bread indefinitely. I'm in awe of this fact today, even though I understand the science behind it. I can only imagine how miraculous this must have seemed to our ancestors. And since we've learned to harness that power, bread has become a staple in the diets of people around the world. So much so, that any threat to the accessibility of affordable bread results in economic and political unrest:
If you want to predict where political instability, revolution, coups d’etat, or interstate warfare will occur, the best factor to keep an eye on is not GDP, the human development index, or energy prices.
“If I were to pick a single indicator—economic, political, social—that I think will tell us more than any other, it would be the price of grain,” says Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, who has been writing about the politics and economics of food since the 1950s. (source)
Bread is perhaps the most important element on Saint Joseph's altars, whether in Italy, Sicily, or Italian America. And this isn't just any loaf we're talking about, either. These breads come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, often expressing something about the baker's devotion through traditional symbolism.
You can make bread in honor of Saint Joseph at home. This recipe is easy and fun to make with friends and family. Even small children can join in the fun, as the dough is similar in consistency to play-doh. It can be eaten immediately or left out as a decoration. Many choose to have their bread blessed by a priest and keep it in the home the invite prosperity and stability in the coming year.
- 8 cups flour
- 1/2 cup lard or shortening
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 packet of dry-active yeast
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 1 egg
Dissolve the flour, lard, salt, sugar, and yeast in half a glass of warm water. Continue to add warm water until the dough is firm. Shape the bread using the symbols you desire. Beat the egg with the lemon juice. Brush the dough with the lemon-egg mixture. Bake at 450 degrees Fahrenheit until golden brown.
Ah, but what symbols to include? That is, of course, a matter of personal preference. As you knead the dough, you can pray to Saint Joseph, thanking him for the blessings he has shown your family in the past year and praying for specific intentions you would like to manifest through his grace in the year to come. I recently took a phenomenal bread-making workshop with the lovely Allison Scola of Experience Sicily, who taught us that the symbols you choose can reflect those personal intentions. (PS - If you'd like to travel to Sicily but aren't sure where to start, she has several tours coming up in 2019 or she can even help you plan one that fits your unique desires.)
Here are a few ideas to get you started, blending traditional symbols with my own perspective as an Italian American:
- Sun - A symbol of the homeland, of life, of fertility, and even of God.
- Carpentry tools - Traditionally masculine work. Fixing broken things, building new things, tinkering with things to find out how they work or what they really are. Consider the function of each: the nail joins things together, and three nails is a shorthand for the crucifixion as much as the cross itself. The hammer applies force and breaks things apart. Pliers hold firmly, manipulate, bend, and compress. What tools do you need right now?
- Sewing tools - More delicate and traditionally feminine work. Storytelling through cloth. In many ancient Mediterranean cultures, textiles were the only way a woman could earn money of her own. Much of this work is safe and repetitive, making it an ideal trance induction technique. These implements figure in many fairytales.
- Ladder - Climbing to new heights. Reaching things that would otherwise be out of grasp. Promotions, achievements, acquisitions; taking things step by step.
- Staff - Vital force. Protection. Pride.
According to legend, a famine hit Sicily in the 15th century. Perhaps it was due to a drought. The crops were withering and dying in their fields, and the people were desperate. So they prayed to Saint Joseph and, miraculously, one crop survived: the humble fava bean. It was considered fodder for livestock at the time. But let me tell you: fava bean soup made according to the recipe below is delicious. (And of course, when you're starving, anything is delicious.)
Today, dried fava beans are considered "lucky". Some would say they're good for "money magic". Some carry one in their wallet, so they'll never run out of money. Some keep one in the pantry, so they'll always have food to eat. And some creative soul might even keep one in her stash box, for obvious reasons.
When we look around the green world, we see so many teachers, elders, and allies. It can be tempting save time by categorizing them in broad strokes: the one is good for money magic, this one is good for love magic. But why use one love magic herb instead of another? Are they all interchangeable? Can you add every money magic herb you've heard of into a charm-bag to make it more powerful?
To truly understand the way plants affect us, we must look beyond easy categories. Some money plants are prodigious multipliers, like mint. The magic and medicine of the fava bean is revealed in its myth. It is protection against disaster and hunger. It's not necessarily there for you to get a raise or a promotion. It's there as an assurance that, no matter what, you will always have something: maybe not the thing you thought you wanted, but enough to get by. That type of magic might not seem relevant to us city slickers whose wealth is stored in numbers on a screen and whose food is grown by other people in other countries. But the world is changing quickly, and if you ask me, I'd rather pass on a spiritual connection with the humble fava bean to my children.
- 1 lb. dried fava beans
- 1 bunch green onions
- 1 medium onion
- 4 cloves garlic
- 3 bay leaves
- 1 bunch parsley (chopped)
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- Salt & pepper to taste
Cook the fava beans in boiling water until tender, adding more water as needed. During cooking, sauté seasoning in olive oil until tender; add to beans. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot in a soup bowl.
Zeppole & Sfinge
Two classic pastries are baked in honor of San Giuseppe. But which is the zeppole, and which is the sfinge? That is a question for the ages, a subject of intense and heated debate among Italian Americans. At my local Sicilian bakery, we call the smaller pastry on the left--a puff pastry filled with cannoli cream--a sfinge, and the larger pastry on the right--filled custard cream--a zeppole. Others would say the exact opposite. To make matters more complicated, some people use the terms interchangeably, and the fried dough balls sold at feste are often called zeppoli.
Follow your heart on this matter.