FORT WORTH, Texas, March 19, 2016 — For some groups, March is about the color red, not the green of spring or St. Patrick’s Day.
Red, you say?? Yes, red. Sicilians, Italians and Poles wear it to honor St. Joseph, earthly father of Jesus. Among other things he is the Patron Saint of families, fathers, unborn children, workers, social justice, the dying, pastry workers and many more people, occupations and countries.
Joseph was not Jesus’ biological father. And only the Gospels of Matthew and Luke mention him. Church tradition holds that he died before Jesus started his ministry at the age of thirty.
The Middle Ages brought a terrible drought to Sicily. People were starving. Virtually nothing grew, except fava beans. The people asked St. Joseph to intercede for them so their harvest would be plentiful. And it was, thus saving the island from further devastation.
Filled with gratitude the people promised to make annual offerings of food to honor the saint and to remember the poor.
Ann Hetzel Gunkel, Ph.D., says on her website Polish Easter Traditions that in modern time, between the 1890’s and 1930’s:
“Polish and Italian immigrants were faced with an American Catholic church hierarchy controlled largely by Irish clergy, most often unsympathetic to the newcomers whom they often regarded as inferior, primitive, overly demonstrative and superstitious.
“In the face of this disdain for Southern and Eastern European Catholicism, Poles responded by forming their own Polish language parishes…while Italians responded by preserving their religious traditions in the form of “Feasts”…run by patronage societies from their home villages and cities.”
As with the green worn by the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, Poles and Italians express their ethnic pride with the “wearing of the red,” a color that appears in both countries’ flags.
The celebration starts with going to Mass. Then there are parades and in respect to Lent, huge feasts mark the day. People gather in homes or church halls decorated in red and white. The food is displayed on a three tiered table referred to as St. Joseph’s Table. The three tiers honor the Holy Trinity. It is a meatless-fest since it falls during Lent.
Elaborate foods and decorations grace the table, such as stuffed artichokes, pasta, fish and staff-shaped breads. Breadcrumbs on top of some of the food, symbolizes the sawdust on St. Joseph’s work floor. There are also an abundance of cookies, pastries, cakes, and other delicacies.
Basket and fish-shaped loaves of bread representing the apostles also adorn the tables. You’ll find a Sicilian pastry called zeppole, Polish potato dumplings called pierogi, and Makowiec – poppy seed cake. Also included are fava beans—the only food to survive a drought—they believe through the intercession of St. Joseph during a famine.
In addition to the food, a statue of St. Joseph, stalks of lily blossoms, votive candles, and lace cloths decorate the tables. There is also a basket to collect donations for the needy, as serving the poor is part of the tradition.
Once a priest ceremoniously blesses the food there are shouts of Viva la tavola di San Giuseppe! or Long live the table of Saint Joseph! and the feast begins.
Pope Francis, like Joseph, lives his faith, and does it through simplicity and humility. He is adamant that they are not mutually exclusive with weakness. Sounds like wise words for everyone to live by.
St. Joseph’s Day is also known as the day in which swallows return to San Juan Capistrano in California. Every year like clockwork they arrive on or very near this date.
It is also Father’s Day in Italy. On this day they remember God the Father, Jesus’ foster father Joseph as well as their biological fathers. We in the U.S. don’t hold Father’s Day until June, but what a great way to honor our own fathers, blood or not—whether your family is modern or traditional.
Sounds like a lot of good reasons to celebrate. Be sure to put on the red, even if you’re not Sicilian or Polish, and join in the fun. Buona Festa di San Giuseppe! or Szczęśliwego dnia Świętego Józefa! Happy St. Joseph’s Day!