In 1911, a church in Bologna, Italy became the first to be dedicated to St. Joseph. At this time, the unofficial feast day for Joseph was just before Easter. It was not until the fifteenth century (under Pope Sixtus IV, 1471-1484) that St. Joseph’s feast day was officially designated as March 19th on the Franciscan calendar, a date just before the vernal equinox so important to pre-Christian agricultural societies. As the patron saint of workers, he is also honored on May 1. In 1726 Benedict XIII added Joseph’s name to the Litany of the Saints, and in 1870 Pius IX named Joseph the patron saint of the Roman Catholic Church. The twentieth century saw a dramatic increase in prayers and honors offered to St. Joseph.
Prior to the advent of Christianity, a spring festival was observed at the time of the vernal equinox that celebrated the season of renewal and expressed the hope for an abundant growing season. St. Joseph’s Day observance, coming as it did just prior to the vernal equinox, adapted some of the symbolism of earlier agricultural and fertility rituals. In this way, a time of prayers for productive animal and agricultural husbandry became the date for honoring the earthly father of Christ in the Catholic church.
Strains of this seasonal fertility prayer and celebration can be seen in some of the existing traditions, such as in the sacred egg or seed which early Christians re-designated to be the seed of Christianity, or even of Mary’s womb. For Sicilians, St. Joseph’s Day is considered the first allowable day of spring planting. Many Sicilian-Americans hold this belief as well, since the climates of Sicily and South Louisiana are similar. It is no surprise, then, that the symbol for St. Joseph’s Day is an as-yet-unplanted bean, or that this saint is honored in gratitude for, and with the fruits of, a bountiful harvest.
A St. Joseph Altar is made each year for St. Joseph's Day, and construction of the altar, with three tiers representing the trinity, and placement of ceremonial foods, wines, candles, and representations of St. Joseph and the holy family usually takes several days. Traditional food includes Cuchidati, large golden-brown bread with a glossy finish of eggwash and sesame seeds formed into various shapes to represent the crown of thorns, fish, hearts, etc., Pupacoulova which are baskets containing dyed eggs, fig cookies and biscotti, as well as plently of fruits, vegetables, and seafood. At the end of the season, there is a huge feast enjoyed by all.