Every March 19th New Orleans Catholics celebrate St. Joseph’s Day by constructing elaborate altars to honor the relief St. Joseph provided during a famine in Sicily. The tradition began in the late 1800’s when Sicilian immigrants settled in New Orleans.
St. Joseph altars, representing the Holy Trinity, are divided into three sections with a statue of St. Joseph at the head. The devout place candles, figurines, flowers, medals and other items around the alter creating a beautiful, lush and overflowing effect. Because the altars thank St. Joseph for relieving hunger, offerings of food are added to the cornucopia that anyone is welcome to feast on during the holiday.
Cookies, cakes and breads, often in the form of shell fish, are common decorations for altars. Fava beans, or “lucky beans” are particularly associated with St. Joseph because they sustained the Sicilians throughout famine. Pick some up for good luck! As tradition has it, the altar is broken up on St. Joseph’s Day with a ceremony of costumed children, pretending to look for shelter, finding sustenance at the altar. Food and donations are then distributed to the public with leftovers going to the poor.
Hosted by the American Italian Marching club, one of the largest ethnic group organizations in the southeast, the annual St. Joseph’s Day parade in the French Quarter is a local favorite. The evening begins with food, wine and Italian music followed by marchers dressed in black tuxedos proceeding to parade until dark. Receive silk flowers and fava beans or dance and sing the hours away with enthusiastic bystanders.
Altars are found at local New Orleans churches, especially those with strong Italian roots, but they are also constructed in private homes, halls, Italian restaurants, and public spaces in different communities throughout the city. The Times-Picayune and the New Orleans Advocate, usually reveals a week in advance where the archdiocese of New Orleans will host altars with visiting hours and food services. Some popular places for a guaranteed look include the St. Louis Cathedral at Jackson Square and the St. Joseph Church on Tulane Avenue by the Italian Renaissance Museum. And if you happen to see a fresh green branch over a local’s doorway, it means you’re invited to participate in the ceremony and to share the food.