A St. Joseph Altar is an offering of love, labor and sacrifice in honor of the patron saint of the Sicilians and the Universal Church. According to legend about the origin of the St. Joseph Altar, Sicily was plagued by drought and famine many centuries ago. In desperation the people turned to St. Joseph, asking his help and intercession. When the rains came and the crops prospered, the prayers of the people of Sicily were answered. In thanksgiving, the people made offerings to St. Joseph of their most prized possession - foods made from the bountiful harvest. In his honor they erected a lovely altar with three levels, representing the Holy Trinity. They draped it simply and beautifully in white, adorned it with flowers and then selected their finest grain, fruits, vegetables, seafood and wine. The poor were invited to share in the prayers and festivities.
The custom of preparing the altar as a symbol of devotion to St. Joseph continues today for various reasons, such as giving thanks for a favor granted, for healing the sick, or for success in business. It is also an opportunity for the prosperous to share with those less fortunate. For many years, the Italian Cultural Society of New Orleans presented a large St. Joseph Altar on the steps of St. Joseph Church, but in the 1970's moved the altar to another location. Because it seemed fitting that the devotion once again have a home at St. Joseph Church, a group of parisioners revived the March 19 (Feast Day of St. Joseph) tradition in 1999.
Preparations begin many weeks in advance of the great day. Much hard work is involved, but all participants joyously accept this as a form of sacrifice and a labor of love. Many hours are spent designing and shaping the elaborate loaves of bread and cookies which decorate the altar. Quite a number of these items are symbolic. The Cuchidata, large golden-brown breads with a glossy finish of eggwash and sesame seeds are rolled and cut into: wreaths representing the Crown of Thorns; hearts symbolizing the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Immaculate Heart of Mary; the cross representing the Crucifixion; a Chalice; and a Monstrance. Other designs depict the staff and beard of St. Joseph, the palms that were strewn before Jesus as he entered Jerusalem, and the Pupacoulova, baskets containing dyed eggs that foretell the coming of Easter.
Cookies are always a favorite item. There are large and small fig cakes in many lovely patterns, biscotti in various shapes and sizes, iced in colors of pink, green, white, yellow and chocolate, and flavored with almond, vanilla, lemon, anise and other spices.
In addition to the wheat products, there is a great variety of fruit, vegetables and seafood. Pasta Milanese is a popular entree and stuffed artichokes are a major attraction. The green fava bean is also served in frittata or with garlic sauce. When dried, roasted and blessed, the fava becomes the very popular "Lucky Bean" or "St. Joseph Bean". Legend has it that you will never be without money as long as you carry a "Lucky Bean".
Invited guests gather in the evening to feast on the many prepared foods. It has become a tradition for children in costume, representing the Holy Family, angels and various saints, to also participate in the meal. The children are usually orphans or from needy families. A small boy, representing the child Jesus, raises his hand in benediction, thereby giving the signal that dinner will begin. The children and the adult guests are invited to eat and later take home pieces of blessed bread and lucky beans. The bread can be eaten, or thrown to the wind during times of bad weather. The bean, according to tradition, is kept in one's possession as a remembrance of St. Joseph, to whom one should pray for blessing and protection.