The Tradition of the St. Joseph’s Day Table

This celebration is a symbolic “thank you” and renewal of the Sicilian people’s devotion to St. Joseph.

St. Joseph’s Day Table
St. Joseph’s Day Table (photo: All Photos by Kevin Di Camillo)

St. Joseph’s Day is, in Italy, also Father’s Day — which isn’t at all surprising as St. Joseph was, of course, the foster father of Jesus. This feast and festival — which always falls in the midst of Lent — is especially commemorated and celebrated in Italy in general and Sicily in particular.

The tradition of the “St. Joseph Table” of food (“la tavala di San Giuseppe”) has its origins in Sicily. Legends from the Middle Ages attributed the end of a devastating drought to a prayer-devotion that the Sicilian people made to St. Joseph. This celebration is a symbolic “thank you” and renewal of the Sicilian people’s devotion to St. Joseph. It is a shared celebration with the entire community where the riches of food are given as alms to the poor: Traditional etiquette is that no one can be turned away from this table.  As it is a living tradition, it has many interpreters and many food entries have been added and deleted along the way but two constants remain: no meat and sesame-coated breads in symbolic shapes.

A St. Joseph’s Day “Table” or “Altar” is a makeshift shrine-cum-dinner-festival held in one’s home, or more recently a church hall or club hall.  The host family or group creates what amounts to a kinetic work of art. This table is rife with symbolism, particularly the decorative breads. It was this part of the meal that brought my own family’s bakery in Niagara Falls to be a participant in hundreds of these celebrations. Sicilian bakers sprinkle copious amounts of sesame seeds — which resemble and symbolize teardrops — on the many different types of St. Joseph’s Day breads which our family bakery has been producing for 96 years.

The breads themselves are made from the same dough that forms our Italian bread — a recipe that came from Italy with my great-grandfather — and come in the following shapes for St. Joseph’s Day:

  • The Latin Cross: The ultimate symbol of our Lord’s suffering and salvation.
  • The Bambino: The baby Jesus to whom St. Joseph was foster father.
  • St. Joseph’s Staff: Legend has it that St. Joseph’s staff blossomed into a lily, a symbol both of life and death.
  •  St. Joseph’s Purse: This symbol is a reminder to give alms to the poor during Lent.
  • A Sheaf of Wheat: Wheat is a reminder that, when a single, tiny grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it bears much more food at harvest time — and that the early spring harvest of greens is almost here.
  • St. Joseph himself: He is always represented in profile and hunched over with a cane, symbolizing that he was (according to tradition) an old man, while Mary was a much younger woman.
  • St. Joseph’s Beard:  This is actually just the Sheaf of Wheat turned upside down, but young children delight when their fathers and grandfathers hold their beard up to their face. It is another reminder of Joseph’s wisdom and old age.
  • Heart: A symbol of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary that flourished throughout Italy in general and Sicily in particular in the 19th century.
  • The Crown of Thorns: This is in remembrance of Christ’s passion and a reminder that, despite the day’s feasting among Lent’s fasting, Lent is still a season of sorrow — but of hope, too!

The St. Joseph’s Day altar, in addition to the breads above, contains a plethora of non-meat dishes due to the fact that St. Joseph’s Day always falls during the penitential season of Lent, and meat is forbidden on the Fridays between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. The very first “greens” of springtime, dandelions and cardones (“burdock”), are sprinkled on pizza. Fish and seafood from both the Mediterranean and Adriatic Seas, especially anchovies and sardines (from “Sardinia”, another Italian island), are served on Foccaccia (Italian flat-bread), and Biscotti Di Camillo (a twice-baked Italian toast-bread). Other St. Joseph’s Day staples include eggplant Caponata, excellent for dipping with Italian bread; as well as Pasta con Sarde, egg frittas, bean dishes, olives, and especially lentils.

Beautiful as the St. Joseph’s Day Table is to behold, it is a practical work of art: it is meant to feed not only friends and relatives but, traditionally, to feed the hungry strangers, those who cannot host their own Table either due to poverty or a particularly bad harvest in their family or having run out of food over the wintertime. Stunning to behold and delicious to partake in, a St. Joseph’s Day Table is a tradition which is still carried on to this day. Perhaps the fact that it is not as well known as St. Patrick’s day corned-beef-and-cabbage is that it emphasizes “food” over “drink.”

Ironically my family founded our first bakery on the same street in Niagara Falls as our parish church — named St. Joseph’s — which has married and buried, baptized and anointed generations of us. Indeed, our first bakery also served as a grocery store where many items, from tuna (tonna) to tomato paste to eggplant Caponata could be picked up in preparation for St. Joseph’s table.

As no feast is complete without dessert, no St. Joseph’s altar would be finished without the flourish of sweet items. My family proudly purveys, after nearly a century, a plethora of biscotti and cookies. Biscotti Di Prato (twice-baked almond dunking-cookies), authentic Sicilian fig-filled Bucaletti Cucudatti, Biscotti Regina (another anise cookie, covered in those same sorrowful sesame seeds); Biscotti di Vino, the venerable biscuit made with red wine (and also covered with sesame seeds), Pane di Spagne (a larger, more airy biscotti), and Biscotti Amaretti (almond macaroons) a cookie fundamental to any Sicilian dessert platter.

However, while my family hails from the Abruzzi, many of our bakers were Sicilian — as were the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus of Ragusa at our grade school. As first generation Sicilian-Americans, who came here to found a school, they produced a St. Joseph’s table (and still do!) that was the finest I’ve ever been invited to partake in.

Viva San Giuseppe!

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FROM TOP TO BOTTOM: (1) Wreath/Crown of Thorns, before baking; (2) Profile of St. Joseph, before baking; (3) Weaving a Sheaf of Wheat/St. Joseph's Beard; (4) the Sheaf of Wheat/St. Joseph's Beard fresh from the oven; (5) Il Bambino, or the Baby Jesus; (6) the author's father, Thomas Di Camillo, and the Holy Cross.

This article originally appeared March 20, 2016, at the Register.