SAINT JOSEPH ALTAR
THE HISTORY OF THE ST. JOSEPH ALTAR
It all started in Sicily. Agriculture was important to the island and there had been no rain to nourish the crops. The dried out wheat stalks cracked beneath the feet of the poor farmers as they walked through their barren fields. Only a sea of dust and withered vines remained from what had once been row upon row of brightly colored fruits and vegetables. The only thing that thrived was the fava bean which is why it is now commonly called “the lucky bean.”
The situation was critical and so the people prayed. They pleaded with St. Joseph, their patron, for relief from the terrible famine that gripped the island. Finally, the skies opened, sending down the life-giving water. The people rejoiced. Later, to show their gratitude, they prepared a table with a special assortment of foods they had harvested. After paying honor to St. Joseph, they distributed the food to the less fortunate.
The first St. Joseph Altar, therefore, was set up on the Island of Sicily. It was a small one, but as time went on and the tradition took hold, the flamboyant nature and creative spirit of the Italians caused the altars to grow larger and more ornate. Today, the artistic quality of breads, cookies and pastries, which are baked in such shapes as chalices, staffs and sandals, ladders and saws, hammers and nails, often rivals the exquisite flavor of these food offerings.
Through Sicilian immigrants, the custom of St. Joseph Altars was introduced to America. But now the celebration is not confined to any nationality. Rather, it has become a public event which its devoted participants embrace for a host of private and personal reasons. The feast is alternately a source of petition and of thanksgiving.
Many families believe that having a St. Joseph Altar can bring good fortune. It is common to hear stories about favors received (a loved one’s recovery from an illness, for example) which are in turn attributed to the family’s dedication to St. Joseph. But whatever the reasons, people became involved in the St. Joseph Feast. One of the special customs calls for the selection of children to portray members of the Holy Family – Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Angels and favorite saints may also be introduced into the ritual which begins with the “saints” going door to door to seek aid until finally reaching the place where the altar is on display.
After the Holy Family has eaten, guests may partake of the meal. Most of the foods presented on the altar are acquired through begging, a symbolic gesture that represents what the poor of Sicily were forced to do. When the feast is over, the remaining food and whatever money has been collected are given to the poor.
Whether a St. Joseph Altar is an elaborate display at an elegant church or a humble table in a modest home, it is a reflection of a deep devotion to St. Joseph, the patron of those in need – workers, travelers, the persecuted, the poor, the aged, the dying. And it is a custom that has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years as young and old have begun to rediscover their heritage.
After many centuries, the St. Joseph Altar still serves as a reminder to those who have enjoyed some measure of good fortune that they must share it with those who have less.
The act of making an altar fulfills a promise made to St. Joseph for an answered prayer. The ultimate purpose of the altar is generosity.
The traditional St. Joseph Altar is constructed in the shape of the cross, with three levels honoring the Holy Trinity. This format has varied greatly over the years. A statue or picture of Joseph, often seen holding the baby Jesus stands at the center of the highest tier with flowers surrounding him. Most often the colors of red, white and green (the colors of the Italian flag) are displayed. Most altars have a basket where visitors can place written petitions.
The main attraction on the altar is food of every kind, which flavors the celebration of the saint, with the exception of meat, because it was forbidden in observance of Lent. Each food on the altar has some traditional significance. Breads are baked in the shapes of ladders, saws and hammers, the carpenter tools, and so forth. Hard-boiled eggs are embedded in baked bread to symbolize the rebirth of spring and the coming of Easter.
The breadcrumbs represent the sawdust of the carpenter. There are wreaths and a crown of thorns, palms branches, wheat, sacred heart, crosses, Joseph’s staff and the Monstrance. The whole baked fish represents the Miracle of the Multiplication of Loaves. Wine recalls the wedding feast at Cana.
The fava bean, which was the only crop that survived the drought and saved many from starvation, is called the lucky bean. The legend goes if you carry a fava bean or lucky bean in your pocket or purse you will never be without money, and the pantry with a fava bean in it will never be bare.
A palm branch outside the building or house of an altar is an invitation to come in.
St. Joseph Altar Symbols
Shapes of the Breads and Cakes
Holds the Sacred Host
Consecration of the Bread and Wine at the Last Supper
Crucifixion of Christ
The Holy Spirit
Jesus, the Lamb of God
Christian symbol of Jesus Christ
Large cake that is one of the focal points of the altar
Sacred Heart of Jesus, Immaculate Heart of Mary
Crown of thorns, also symbols of eternal love
Palm of martyrdom, also the palms cast at the feet
of Jesus as he entered Jerusalem
Symbols of St. Joseph
ST. JOSEPH IS THE PATRON SAINT OF:
The Goodie Bag
Visitors to St. Joseph Altars are given small paper bags containing a few blessed items from the Altar. The bags usually contain a holy card and a small medal. Various cookies or small breads may also be in the bag.
The most interesting item found in the goodie bag is the fava bean. In Sicily, the fava was fodder for cattle. During a great famine the people resorted to eating them to survive. They were considered lucky to have favas to eat, hence the fava bean is also known as a "lucky bean." Some believe that the pantry that contains a fava bean will never be bare. The fava, or lucky bean, serves as a token of the Altar - a reminder of God's provisions through the intercession of St. Joseph.
THE WORKERS AND THE WORK
The individuals who work on St. Joseph altars are fulfilling their own promises to St. Joseph to share their blessings with those in need. The workers contribute to the altar not for their own purposes but for St. Joseph or for a family member or friend.
One tradition entails begging for the supplies to build the altar. The altar must not incur any expense nor any personal financial gain. As an act of devotion to St. Joseph, supplicants traditionally promised 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. 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. 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.
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.