Cultural Crossroads
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St. Joseph's Day Altars
by Anna Maria Chupa

Photograph by Anna Maria Chupa St. Joseph's Day altars began as a custom brought to New Orleans by Sicilian immigrants. The tradition of building the altar to St. Joseph began as far back as the Middle Ages in gratitude to St. Joseph for answering prayers for deliverance from famine. The families of farmers and fisherman built altars in their homes to share their good fortune with others in need. The tradition grew to a more public event on St. Joseph's Feast Day on March 19. Today the individuals who work on the altars are fulfilling their own promises to St. Joseph "to share their blessings with those in need."(2) Without exception, the altar workers explained that they contributed to the altars not for their own purposes but 'for St. Joseph' or for a family member or friend.(5)

One tradition entails begging for the supplies to build the altar. The altar must not incur "any expense nor any personal financial gain."(2) As an act of devotion to St. Joseph, supplicants would promise to build an altar should their sons return home from war safely. Part of the personal sacrifice involved was the act of begging for food.(5)

Although there are perishable foods on the altars, a large portion of the breads, cookies and cakes are wrapped so that they may be given to charities after the altar is broken. The altar is broken after a ceremony which reenacts the Holy Family seeking shelter. The ceremony is called Tupa Tupa "which in Italian means Knock Knock." Children dressed in costume "knock at three doors asking for food and shelter. At the first two they are refused. At the third door, the host of the Altar greets them and welcomes them to refresh themselves."(2)

Butler's Lives of the Saints lists St. Joseph as the patron saint of Families, Working Men, Social Justice, and the Church. St. Joseph is also the Patron Saint of the dying.(3) Following the blessing of the altar on the afternoon of March 18, visitors are invited to leave written petitions to St. Joseph or donations for the poor. The Mary's Helper Newsletter invited people to mail their petitions for the altar in the event that they could not visit personally.

Spiritualism and Vodun Connection
My own journey to the St. Joseph's Day altars began while I was conducting research on Spiritualism and Vodun in New Orleans. In my search for more information on Damballah, an African spirit who came to be associated with St. Patrick and with Moses in the syncretized Vodun of new world contexts, I also saw frequent references to St. Joseph. Spiritualist churches who honored Black Hawk as a patron spirit of social justice simultaneously honored St. Joseph and Moses in prominent positions on their altars.

The Mary's Helpers Newsletter makes an interesting connection in the interpretation of Joseph as a deliverer. "It was told to the Israelites in the Old Testament, 'Go to Joseph,' if they wanted any favor or benefit, referring to the Joseph of Egypt. 'Go to Joseph,' is the advice and counsel given to every Catholic who wants a favor and believes in the sanctity of the Holy Family."

More on Sicilians in New Orleans
Photograph by Anna Maria Chupa Members of The Greater New Orleans Italian Cultural Society (GNOICS) built their first altar in 1967 "on the front steps of the St. Joseph church on Tulane Avenue."(4) In 1978, the altar location was moved to the Piazza D'Italia, primarily because inclement weather in previous years made the outdoor location on the steps of St. Joseph's problematic.(Chupa:98) Piazza d'Italia is located on "300 Poydras, to the rear of the American Italian Renaissance Foundation Museum and Library building."(4) In 1998, the Altar was prepared under the direction of Mr. and Mrs. Peter Bertucci who have been involved with the altar preparations since 1967. The GNOICS altar has since been reestablished at St. Joseph's Church.

The concentration of Sicilian immigrants in New Orleans explains why this tradition is almost exclusive to this southeastern city. Whereas most immigrants from Naples "settled in New York and other cities along the eastern seaboard" the Sicilians "sailed from Palermo and landed in New Orleans. Between 1850 and 1870, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that there were more Italians in New Orleans than in any other U.S. city. By 1910, the population of the city's French Quarter was 80 percent Italian. Today there are 200,000 Americans of Italian descent living in New Orleans and its suburbs, making Italian Americans the largest ethnic group in the city."(4)

Symbols in the St. Joseph's Day altar
Many of the altars we visited were constructed in the form of a Latin cross with two additional tables running parallel to the length of the cross. This tripartite arrangement refers to the Trinity. A statue of St. Joseph or a picture of the Holy family is usually at the top of the altar.(1)

"All of the items on the altar * food, candles, medals, holy cards and fava beans * are blessed by a priest in a special ceremony the afternoon before an altar is 'broken.'" That evening people may visit to pray and leave petitions. Donations are collected for the poor."(1)

Over the doorway a fresh green branch is placed to indicate that the public is invited to participate "in the ceremony and to share the food."(1) The specially prepared breads on the St. Joseph1s altar make take many forms. As this custom is observed during the Lenten season, and the tradition was begun in Sicily where fish and shellfish were more common than meat, decorative breads in the form of shellfish are common. Other symbolic imagery specific to Joseph might include tools used by a carpenter (ladder, saw, hammer, nails) as well as sandals, lilies and a staff. Some of the breads are prepared with a decorative interlace and filled with figs, alluding to the fig orchards of Sicily.(1)

Breads and cakes may also take the form of more common Christian symbols, i.e., the Monstrance or Spada which holds the sacred Host; the Chalice, which refers to the consecration of the Bread and Wine at the Last Supper; the Cross (crucifixion of Christ), Dove (Holy Spirit), Lamb, Fish (Jesus as the Lamb of God and the Fisher of Men); and Hearts (Sacred Heart of Jesus, Immaculate Heart of Mary. A heart pierced by a dagger also refers to the grieving mother or Mater Dolorosa and may bear the names of recently departed loved ones.) A Crown of Thorns and Palms refer to martyrdom and symbols of eternal love.(1)

Photograph by Anna Maria Chupa Wine bottles on the altar represent the miracle of Cana and the twelve whole fish represent the twelve apostles and the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. Other images specific to Sicily include grapes, olives and figs referring to the orchards and vineyards in Sicily. Two prepared foods that are commonly seen on the altar include the Pignolatti and the Pupaculova. The Pignolatti are fried pastry balls joined together in the shape of a pine cone representing "the pine cones Jesus played with as a child." The Pupaculova is a baked bread which encloses a dyed Easter egg representing the "coming of Easter."(1)

Bread crumbs or "Mudica" are served as a seasoning over the Pasta Milanese on St. Joseph's Feast Day and symbolize sawdust.(1) The food served to the public on St. Joseph1s Day is a reenactment of a promise made to St. Joseph for delivery from famine. "Small bags are given as keepsakes to all who visit the altar. Each bag may contain a blessed medal, holy card, fava beans, cookies or bread."(1)

The people we spoke to had several interpretations regarding the appearance of lemons on the St. Joseph's Day altars. Citrus fruits are common in the orchards of Sicily. One woman said that it was good luck to "steal" a lemon from the altar leaving hidden coins behind for the poor.(5) Several women told us that a lemon blessed on St. Joseph's altar will not turn black and is a symbol of good luck.(6) Another woman said that the lemons are for young married women who want to become pregnant. Still others mentioned that during certain periods, the lemon was a luxury so its appearance on the altar is a way of returning ones good fortune to others.(5)

Artichokes figure prominently in the food served and when they are available in abundance, stuffed artichokes may also appear on the altars. In 1998, because artichokes were so scarce, they were not seen on the four altars we visited. In 1997, the artichokes were plentiful.

Perhaps the most ubiquitous symbol to be found on the altar is the lucky Fava Bean. "The gift of a blessed bean is the most well known of the customs associated with the St. Joseph's Day altar. During one of Sicily's severe famines, the fava bean thrived while other crops failed. It was originally grown for animal fodder, but because of its amazing resilience, it became the sustaining food of the farmers and their families. The dried bean is commonly called the "lucky bean." Legend has it that the person who carries a 'lucky bean' will never be without coins. The fava bean is a token of the St. Joseph's Altar, and a reminder to pray to St. Joseph," particularly for the needs of others.(5)

Note from the author: Since 1999, I have been involved with the St. Joseph's Altar tradition in Starkville, MS. I am particularly thankful to the women of St. Joseph's parish in Gretna LA for sharing their tradition with me. For our 1999 altar, they sent up some of their cookies. Last year, we used the recipes from their cookbook.

  1. St. Joseph Church, Gretna, LA St. Joseph Altar Customs
  2. Mary's Helpers, Inc. News: February 25, 1998
  3. Butler's Lives of the Saints 1991
  4. IADI: Spring 1998
  5. Anna Chupa, Field notes, March 18, 1998. Interview with Dolly and Peter Bertucci, Piazza D'Italia and visitors and altar workers at St. Joseph's Church, Gretna, LA
  6. Anna Chupa, Field notes, March 19, 1997. Interview at Our Lady of Lourdes, Violet, LA
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