The St. Joseph’s Table is a centuries old Sicilian tradition celebrated on March 19, the feast day of St. Joseph. Devotion to St. Joseph began very early in Christian communities and Italians, especially Sicilians, have a special devotion to St. Joseph. They experienced his protection in a special way. According to tradition, a long and devastating drought during the Middle Ages in Sicily caused a severe famine. In their starvation and suffering, Sicilians offered novenas of prayer to Saint Joseph asking for rain. They were rewarded with abundant rain and a rich harvest.
Following the harvest, landlords and farmers prepared a solemn feast in honor of Saint Joseph. Besides the religious celebration in every town and village, families prepared a gigantic altar-table filled with every kind of food, fancy pastry, Sicilian delicacies, flowers, and decorations. Standing in the center of the Table is the statue of St. Joseph.
The guests of honor at the dinner were the poor and needy people of the town. This was the organizers’ way to share their blessings, and to honor and thank St. Joseph. This celebration, known as the St. Joseph’s Table, became a yearly tradition. This celebration is still very popular in Sicily and wherever Sicilians live.
Centuries later, Italian immigrants brought this tradition with them to the New World. Originally, the St. Joseph’s Table was held in private homes, but gradually moved to larger parish halls and became a community celebration. The expert Sicilian bakers welcome parishioners and the community to help prepare the Table and enjoy the festivities.
The St. Joseph’s Table is more than a celebration of the past. The celebration is always associated with people’s experience of favors received, healing of the sick, safe return of a loved one from war, a bountiful catch of fish or any other blessing.
Preparation for the St. Joseph’s Table begins many weeks in advance. The great variety of dishes, baked goods and desserts reflect the fruit, vegetables and seafood indigenous to Italy. The foods are prepared to display and to be consumed, therefore, they must look as good as they taste. No meat is used, as the feast occurs during Lent when eating of meats was not permitted.
Several days before the feast, the workers begin setting the previously constructed and decorated and draped St. Joseph Table. Typically, there are three levels in honor of the Holy Trinity. The three levels represent the Holy Family of Jesus, Joseph, and Mary. The Table is elegantly decorated with breads baked in shapes to represent Jesus’ Crown of Thorns, the Cross, St. Joseph’s cane, and the Sacred Heart.
There are platters of sweets, cannoli (round fried pastry filled with ricotta sweetened with sugar, nuts and chocolate), cucidata (fig cookies & rings), pignolati (fried pastry kernels mixed with a honey-caramel glaze & shaped like pyramids to represent the pine cones Jesus must have played with as a child), biscotti traditionally flavored with anise, lemon, almond, or vanilla. Cream puffs (zeppole) and Sfingi di San Giuseppe (St. Joseph’s fried puff pastry) are popular treats.
There are cakes shaped like lambs, bibles, crosses or angels. You would see fresh fruit like figs, prickly pears, melons, oranges, and lemons along with candy covered almonds or confetti. The table is accented with fresh flowers, statues, pictures, and other devotional decorations associated with Jesus, Joseph, and Mary.
Many fresh vegetables like asparagus, artichoke, bell pepper, broccoli, cardi (cardoon), cauliflower, eggplant, fennel, garlic, or Swiss chard, are colorfully displayed. Frittata or omelet pies made from many of these vegetables are a major part of the prepared food presentations.