One of my favorite feast days is March 19th: Feast of St. Joseph, foster-father of Jesus Christ. The Italians celebrate Joseph’s Feast in the most extravagant way, and since I’ve made no secret of the fact I’m a wannabe Italian, we celebrate Joseph’s Day the Italian way in our home: with a “Joseph’s Table.”
History of the Joseph’s Table
The tradition of a “Joseph’s Table” originated in Sicily. Legend has it that through St. Joseph’s intercession rain fell on March 19th in a parched and starving Sicilian village. In thanksgiving, the village hosted a huge feast in Joseph’s honor in the town square. EVERYONE was invited. The feast was set up as an altar to St. Joseph, with myriads of symbolic meaning in the food and the items placed on the “altar” or feasting table. You can read more about the history and tradition of the Joseph’s Table on Catholic Culture’s website HERE.
It’s been the tradition in our home for the past couple years to host a Joseph’s Table and invite various friends and family to attend. We’ve had such a great time at these festive events.
I try to include as much of the original Sicilian symbolism on my Joseph’s Table as I can – but I do it the “busy budgeting mom” way. That means I take short cuts. Lots of them. For instance in very anti-Italian-Mama fashion, everything on my table is not made from scratch. The flowers are not all freshly picked from a garden. I don’t spend all week designing and baking various breads for my alter. I only bake one or two kinds and invite our friends to bring bread to add to our Table. While my shortcuts abound (I’ll get into more detail on what they are below) the symbolism is still present, and so is the open-door policy of welcoming people to share in our praying and our feasting in honor of the one God handpicked to be His earthly father.
The pictures I’m sharing are from last year’s Joseph’s Table, since I don’t have this year’s Table all set up yet. Here’s our altar before we put all the food on it (every dish on a Joseph’s Table is meatless. Even though it’s a major feast day, it’s still a feast within the Great Fast of Lent. Hence the nada on meat). The Italians don’t skimp on the wine or the desserts on a Joseph’s Table though. (My kinda people, I’m telling you!).
Symbols and Meanings on the Joseph’s Table:
The Joseph’s Table usually contains several symbolic items (I wrote them out on a poster for my Joseph’s Day guests).
1. Three-tiered altar, symbolizing the three Persons of the Holy Trinity
2. Statue or picture of St. Joseph is always on the top. This is the only day Joseph is “on top” and flanked by his wife and his son. (I used my Sacred Heart and Immaculate Heart pictures on the second tier of my altar).
3. Water and wine (Wedding at Cana) and wine and oil (representing the vineyards and farms in Italy).
4. Fava beans (the food that fed the starving Sicilians during their drought. I’m able to find fresh ones at my grocery store but you could also use dry beans).
5. Lilies: the flower of St. Joseph. Instead of buying fresh flowers, I found tons of white lilies at the Dollar Tree, so that’s what we use on our altar.
6. Breadcrumbs, representing the sawdust in the Carpenter’s Shop. I crushed up Saltine crackers in my hand and sprinkled them all over my table. A mess but a fun one!
7. Twelve fish (or twelve fish dishes) symbolizing the twelve apostles. I made two shortcuts to get around this one: I put a bowl filled with Goldfish on the Table, and I also cut out twelve “fish” out of construction paper, wrote the names of the 12 Apostles on the fish, and hung them on a string behind St. Joseph.
8. Bread, made in symbols of St. Joseph’s life. I used my Lenten pretzel recipe (which you can find here) to make the letters of Joseph’s name, and also some of the tools Joseph would use in the carpenter’s shop. (Don’t laugh – my hammer and saw got pretty puffy in the oven. My pastor enjoyed making jibes at my rendition of carpenter’s tools last year – but in my defense, I’m a girl who doesn’t use tools all that much, and the oven makes pretzel dough puffy!) Haha.
8. Red. Traditional color for Joseph’s Day. I used a red table cloth, red candles, and red construction paper for my “fish.”
9. Sfinge di San Giuseppe (St. Joseph’s Cream Puffs). I don’t really know why, but I’ve read that the Sfinge (cream puffs) are always always on a Joseph’s Table. My shortcut: the huge bucket of cream puffs you can get in the frozen section of Costco. After thawing mine, I drizzle them with dark chocolate and sprinkle with powdered sugar. There’s never a single cream puff left on the alter by the end of our celebration. So they can’t be all that bad, even if they’re not scratch-made (someday!).
10. Cakes, pies, or other desserts made out of religious shapes or symbols. I made a chocolate cake with my crucifix mold, and put a St. Joseph holy card in the middle (red and green sprinkles for Italia of course).
11. Holy cards, rosaries, and other religious symbols. All of your guests are invited to place their religious items on the altar during the feast. The first year I hosted a Joseph’s Table, one large family each brought a favorite statue, rosary, or holy card for our table. It was fantastic! I keep a pile of St. Joseph holy cards on the table so everyone can take one home with them.
12. Pictures of deceased family members. Some Italian families place the whole genealogy on the Joseph Table as a way of remembering, honoring, and praying for their loved ones who’ve gone before them. I haven’t done this yet, but Google image “Joseph’s Table” to get an idea of what some Italian families do. Check out how extravagant and gorgeous some of the altars are! I love it.
Every year I’m learning more and more about the traditions surrounding St. Joseph’s Day. I love the fact a feast day can be used not only to honor the Saint of that day, but also to teach so much about the rich symbolism and history of the Catholic faith. And perhaps best of all, these rich festivities draw us closer in friendship and fellowship with others who come to celebrate with us.
Happy St. Joseph’s Day, friends!
* * * * *
[Final note: I’ve created a handout with the traditional prayers, Bible readings, and litanies that are said, either by a priest or by the husband of the home, before the celebration of the feast begins. If anyone is interested, leave a comment and I’ll email the file to you directly so you can use it at your own Joseph’s Table.]