March 19 is the Feast Day of St. Joseph, who is one of many widely renowned Saints. St. Joseph’s Altars are celebrated nationwide, but more so here in the South. This tradition comes from Sicilian immigrants, who introduced St. Joseph Altars to America. These Altars are planned months beforehand by dedicated volunteers who put much of their time, love, and devotion into making this a great event.
The idea of these altars came from Sicilians, who brought their customs with them when they immigrated to America. St. Joseph Alters are a way to give thanks and praise to St. Joseph for preventing a famine in Italy during the Middle Ages. Today, people celebrate to continually thank St. Joseph for his graciousness in their time of need.
According to legend, there was a severe drought and the people prayed that their patron saint, St. Joseph, would send them rain. In their prayers, they stated that if their prayers were answered, then they would prepare a large feast to honor him. After many prayers, the rain came, so the people fulfilled their promise and proceeded to host a large banquet. Throughout the years, these feasts grew larger and larger.
These Altars are traditionally created in the shape of a cross, though it may vary, with three tiers to represent the Holy Trinity. On the highest tier is either a statue or picture of Joseph, most often holding the baby Jesus. Figurines, flowers, candles and other items are placed around the Altar and the colors surrounding the Altar are normally red, white, and green, the colors of the Italian Flag.
The food placed on St. Joseph’s Altar is each significant in its own way. Cookies, cakes, and bread are the most common of food. Breads are often shaped and decorated in shapes such as crosses, doves, fish, carpenter tools, and much more to honor St. Joseph.
Fava beans, or “lucky beans”, are commonly associated with St. Joseph because these beans sustained the Sicilians throughout their drought. It was said that fava beans were the only crop that survived and that is why it is sometimes called the lucky bean. Legends have it that if you carry a fava bean in your pocket or purse, you will never be without money, and a pantry containing a fava bean means it will never be empty.
After what is normally a week, the Altar is broken and a prayer is said. In some places, before an Altar is broken, there is even a ceremony that reenacts the Holy Family seeking shelter. After the Altar is dismantled, all perishable food items are given to those less fortunate, and sometimes gift bags containing prayer cards and fava beans are distributed to guests.
Ultimately, the St. Joseph Altar is a source of petition and thanks, and after many centuries, it is still used as a reminder to those who have good fortune to share with others.
Many churches and public places get involved in St. Joseph Altars. Places participating in this event can be found in newspapers the week of and before March 19, or in your local church bulletin. A palm branch outside of a church or house with an altar represents an invitation to go on in.