At the end of the nineteenth century, a wave of Italian immigrants, the majority of them from Sicily, came to New Orleans. One of the most visible traditions they maintained here was the construction of altars dedicated to St. Joseph. While there are several legends detailing the origin of the altars in Sicily, the most common tells of the people praying to St. Joseph to help them in the midst of a terrible famine. The famine ended because of a bounty of fava beans, which supplied an unexpected source of food. The people created an altar of thanks and began a yearly tradition honoring the saint. The presence of the fava bean in the story explains why everyone who visits an altar takes away a “lucky” bean or fava bean.
By 1910, forty percent of the population of Louisiana and 90% of the French Quarter was Italian, primarily Sicilian. At that time there were so many altars given in homes and churches that it was impossible for one person to visit them all, even in one’s own neighborhood. Instead another tradition developed: visiting nine altars and at the ninth, making a wish. It would be granted. It is this thread of petition that runs through the tradition of the altar.
Altars are made in gratitude to St Joseph for answering a prayer, or to ask for a favor including intervention during one’s own crisis or on behalf of another. Some altars are also made in memoriam of departed loved ones and relatives. St Joseph is asked to watch over their souls. Sometimes the petitioner promises to create one altar, sometimes to create an annual altar. Those who cannot make an altar are able to keep their promises to St Joseph by working on altars in their community or church.
Some altars are created out of a custom called questua, which means “searching” or “seeking”. Instead of buying the ingredients and materials for the altar, one begs for them, further humbling oneself in an act of poverty. This recalls the impoverishment of the starving Sicilians who initially asked for St Joseph’s help. It also reminds the person on the questua of the purpose of the altar: to feed the hungry.
The tradition of St Joseph altars follows a certain ritual. After all the food has been brought to the altar, preparations to distribute it to the poor begin. First, children dressed as the Holy Family and sometimes as other saints, arrive at the door of the home or the church. They knock twice (this is called “tupa tupa, the Sicilian word for “knock”) and are told there is no room and are turned away. The third time they knock, they are brought in and fed. Each member of the Holy Family tastes at least a bite of every dish on the altar. After this, the public is welcomed to share in the bounty.
The traditional St Joseph altar is constructed in the shape of the Cross, with three levels honoring the Holy Trinity. A statue or picture of Joseph stands in the center of the highest tier, surrounded by flowers. Statues or photographs of the Virgin, other saints and photographs of deceased loved ones or people in need are located on other tiers. Some altars have a basket where visitors can place written petitions.
On every altar the main attraction is food, including oranges, berries, figs, squash, fennel stalks, grapes, garlic bulbs, olives, artichokes, stuffed peppers, and eggplants. There is no meat, as St Joseph’s Day usually falls during Lent. Every food has some significance. Bread is shaped like crosses, Joseph’s staff, and his carpenter’s tools including saws, hammers and ladders. St Joseph’s bread is believed to have special powers. Throwing a morsel into a storm is believed to have the power to calm the winds. A piece kept in the house is supposed to insure that the family will never be without food. A breadcrumb topping called mudrica, is sprinkled on pasta Milanese, representing the sawdust of the carpenter.
Other symbolic foods include cakes shaped like lambs, covered in coconut, which represent the sacrifice of Christ; pastries formed into the pierced heart of the Mater Dolorosa; pignolatti resembling the pine cones Jesus is said to have played with as a child. Whole fish symbolize the Miracle of Multiplication; wine recalls the feast at Cana. Stealing a lemon from the altar ensures one will meet the person you are destined to marry before the next St Joseph’s Day. Each visitor takes away a dry roasted fava bean, for good luck. This intersection of luck, generosity and a reminder of the needs of other all embody the meaning of this day.
“A man, living at the Little Sisters of the Poor retirement home wanted more beer served with his meals. He put a beer can with flowers in front of the statue of Saint Joseph and made his petition for more beer. A visiting priest at the home asked about the unusual flower container and was told of the old man’s prayer. While traveling to another city the next day, the priest started chuckling to himself about the old man and the beer can. The man sitting beside him asked why he was laughing. After listening to the story, the man said that he owned a brewery, and that if the little sisters of the poor needed more beer, they would get it. And they did.”