Folklore-St. Joseph’s Table
In an online article posted by St. Francis of Assisi Roman Catholic Church, St. Joseph is described as: “…the husband of the Virgin Mary and the adoptive father of Jesus Christ. He is the Patron Saint of fathers, families, house hunters, carpenters, workers, of Canada, of Peru, of social justice and of a happy death.”
Joseph is also honored as the patron saint of the poor and desperate and it is in this role we find the custom of St. Joseph’s Table, which is an elaborate, meatless and literal feast. St. Joseph, in his many protector roles, is primarily honored in ethnic groups which follow Catholicism, although his day, March 19th is also recognized in the liturgical calendar of the Episcopalian church. The groups that celebrate with a St. Joseph’s Table include Sicilians, Italians, in general, Poles and occasionally Irish. Apparently, just being Catholic doesn’t necessarily include following the tradition of St. Joseph’s Table.
In a phone interview with family acquaintances, Mr. And Mrs. Louis Chaba, who are Hungarian, it was noted that while there had never been that kind of celebration at either St. Elizabeth’s (a Hungarian church their families had founded in Buffalo’s Black Rock section) or at Blessed Sacrament, (where they currently attend) they had heard about the custom. One evening, when they were at dinner at an Italian restaurant, with an elderly Sicilian friend of theirs, the owner came over to invite them all to a Table the restaurant was putting on that year. As is the usual manner of the custom, they were invited to partake as much as they wanted and asked only to make whatever free-will offering they could afford. For the truly poor, nothing is expected except gratitude shown, in some way, to the saint. This idea of caring for the poor was very important in the years of greatest migration according to an article in the January 1996 edition of American Folklore. The author, Richard Raspa contrasts two different periods of migration this way:
Until 1880 almost all immigrants were from the richer, industrialized northern provinces — Liguria, Lombardy, and Piedmont — attracted, for the most part by the opportunities in the West. Among the immigrants were skilled craftsmen, small businessmen, as well as farmers, who brought their folk beliefs and customs and adapted them to the new environment. While they came as families and individuals, in general there were not enough of them to support a Little Italy…After 1880, 80% of the immigrants were from the poorer, agrarian regions of south Italy…Almost all were contadini (peasants)….the majority were sharecroppers and day laborers who saw themselves as no more than beasts, like mules or bison. They cursed the land that caused their families to live on the edge of starvation. What pushed more than 15,000 immigrants a day to America some years was the culmination of natural and social calamities in south Italy that smothered the peasants will to continue
It is this later group of immigrants who brought and cherished the veneration of St. Joseph. They understood the hard times that would make such a champion more than pleasant. He would be necessary where there seemed no other hope. Also, there was a relationship with the saints, that people felt they couldn’t have with God. God was remote, unapproachable. Saints were local, close by. They were approachable to the point that, “…often the saint would be punished if a request was not answered in what was thought to be a reasonable time. Punishment would be the public cursing of the statue or relic…dunking it in water or placing it upside down in a cabinet until the favor was received.” (Piatkowski)
In the course of this research, it was also discovered that there are Catholic parishes that hold St. Joseph’s Table as a way of celebrating community, togetherness, and blessings in general.
The custom of St. Joseph’s Table began in Sicily during the Middle Ages. An article in the LeRoy Pennysaver and News states:
The story has it that there was a sever drought in Sicily and the rich crop farmers were about to lose large amounts of money because of the poor crop. They prayed to St. Joseph to intercede for rain. The rains came and the crop that was harvested was not only good but plentiful. In thanksgiving the wealthy landowners prepared a feast which they served to their poor farmhands and their families.
There is a variation on the story collected by Piatkowski at the St. Joseph’s (Buffalo) RC church Table:
The fishermen had been having very bad luck in catching fish. There were none in the sea. The sea was empty. The fishermen promised St., Joseph that if he gave them fish they would make a feast for all the people of the village. They caught a great amount of fish and fulfilled their promise by having a feast in the village square. Because the first Table was done by fishermen, this is why fish, not meat is always served at the Table.
This is one explanation of why the feast is meatless. The other reason given for focusing on fish, breads, vegetables and pastas is because St. Joseph’s day falls in Lent.
The custom was brought to the United States in the migrations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although the custom is best known among Sicilians it is also recognized in some Polish communities such as those in Chicago and Milwaukee.
Generally, the sequence of events begins with some great need: Healing, a job, protection for a loved one serving in a war. The promise is made that the Table will be performed if the request is granted.
An altar is set up in the home, weeks are spent in preparing all the decorations and days are spent doing the cooking. Some altars are done completely by one family but it is also very common for the St. Joseph Table to be put on by a church, a restaurant or an ethnic social club.
There are different customs surrounding the Table. In the New Jersey area, these customs include nothing red included in the decorations. The online newsletter of St. Francis of Assisi Roman Catholic church in Hackensack states that, “…table should be suitably decorated with linens and flowers. The colors should be white, yellow and green. (THERE SHOULD BE NO RED AT ALL ON THE TABLE.) (Emphasis is in the write-up) Even the sauce for the Milanese is not red…”
There is an explanation of the elements of the table such as white and yellow symbolizing, “… The graces necessary for a good life. Oranges and lemons symbolize riches or the means to get our temporal needs met.”
There is no explanation of why there should be no red and actually according to an online article about Polish Easter traditions in the Chicago area, red is a part of the Table decorating scheme because there is red in the Polish and Sicilian flags. This article explains the original American importance of the St. Joseph day celebration in Chicago as partly religious and partly political.
While Poles most certainly honor and revere St. Joseph, in American Polonia, these values have flourished in interesting and hybrid ways. Especially in the earlier waves of immigration (1890s-1930s), Polish and Italian immigrants were faced with an American Catholic church hierarchy controlled largely by Irish clergy, most often unsympathetic to the newcomers whom they often regarded as inferior, primitive, overly demonstrative and superstitious.
The city of Chicago responded to this Irish “domination” with a huge parade and turning the Chicago River green. The Polish and Italians responded with a redefined St. Joseph’s Day — which of course — is just two days later. In answer to the “wearin’ of the green,” Poles and Italians wore red.
This writer goes on to say: Having formed our identity in the cauldron of Chicago and Milwaukee’s parochial schools, our Polish-American family celebrates St. Joseph’s Day with a St. Joseph’s Table in our home, which is decorated with red and white for the saint and for Poland…Our American Polskosc (Polishness) requires zepole from Il Giardino Bakery on Harlem Avenue in Chicago as well as Sicilian St. Joseph’s pasta (meatless of course) alongside the pierogi and makowiec (Poppy Seed Cake)!
This decided Americanization of the celebration is very obvious in Resurrection parish of LaSalle in the diocese of Peoria, Illinois. A report in the Catholic Post says, ” The parish’s seventh annual St. Joseph’s Table celebration, held Sunday at the LaSalle Catholic School gym, gave hundreds of parishioners and guests a chance to sample foods of many ethnic and family traditions.” The article goes on to say that members of the parish are invited t o contribute foods that represent their ethnic or family traditions.
There are customs that are geographical. In Louisiana, people take out classified ads inviting people into their homes. In Buffalo, they don’t. After Viet Nam, it wasn’t unusual to see signs on houses inviting any and all to attend a Table being given to say “Thank You” for the safe return of a loved one.
Group observances are important, but personal, individual observances are, perhaps more important. One of the traditions involved with putting on a table is the idea of begging for either money, supplies, or services to put on the Table. Individual participants may fulfill a personal promise to the saint by their donation of foods, wine, bread or time for cooking.
This individualization of the custom is described in some detail in Folklore of American Holidays. The article is by Ida M. Santini of Detroit, a student of folklore at Wayne State University, and it describes Joseph’s Table as she saw it done in her grandmother’s home in childhood.
The celebration required extensive preparation. The whole house, every piece of furniture and bric-a-brac, every window and curtain and doily, must be thoroughly cleaned and renovated with painting, polishing and scrubbing. Then the table was set up in the front parlor, and on it a starched, elaborately embroidered white linen cloth. As a girl, she (the grandmother, clarification mine) had woven this herself, and then devoted countless additional hours embellishing it with intricate cut work embroidery learned at the convent school. Statuettes of saints, large and small — all that she could borrow, besides her own, were arranged on the table with vases of realistic artificial flowers she had fashioned herself…Using the best table and chinaware she could obtain, she set three places at the table, which she further decorated with festoons of bright ribbons. (pg.144)
This writer went on to tell about the seemingly endless specially-shaped loaves of bread her grandmother got a from the bakery. In contradiction to most of the writing about St. Joseph’s table this eye witness reported her grandmother preparing chicken and veal in various ways. She also reports the customs — common among the various groups, of the pageant to find shelter and the three “saints” whose job is to represent all the poor. There are the customs of offering the saints the food first, the customs of the saints eating to their fill before anyone else eats, and variations on the theme of money raised going to the people who play the parts of the saints or to a charity supported by a club or restaurant that is sponsoring a Table. Another custom that is universal is that of having everything, altar, Table, food blessed before the Table is “broken” or opened for feasting.
St. Joseph’s Day has also been the subject of research by people of what seems, widely disparate viewpoints. In “Giving an altar” The Ideology of Reproduction in a St. Joseph’s Day Feast, in the Journal of American Folklore: 1996: Kay Turner and Suzanne Seriff, apply a feminist interpretation to St. Joseph’s Table or Altar.
The St. Joseph’s Altar tradition — dating back to the 16th century in Sicily — continues to be celebrated in Sicilian-American enclaves in Texas, Louisiana, California, and elsewhere. San Giuseppi, patron of the family, the poor, the widowed, the orphans, is honored through the creation of elaborate — literally floor to ceiling — altars composed primarily of food and traditionally dedicated and displayed in the home. It is the female head of household who “gives” the altar…This woman-centered altar tradition provides a splendid case in point for understanding folklore practices and performance through a feminist orientation.
What feminist theory brings to the interpretation of women’s lore is a commitment to understanding lore as it arises from and promotes a woman-centered ideology…one that we call an ideology of reproduction. (447)
They go on to explain that they are not using the term reproduction in a “Marxist sense” but in a sense derived from feminist scholars. The authors make the claim that, “These feminists have effectively reclaimed reproduction as an ideological sphere separate from production. They asserted that the potential for reproduction is as maternal practice, including pregnancy, birthing, child-rearing and family nurturance.”
This article goes on to discuss St. Joseph’s Altar/Table in terms of women expressing power as..” social development of human capacities, rather then in terms of conquest and domination.”
The authors contend that St. Joseph’s Altar is a “woman-centered” celebration because — as far as can be determined — women make all the decisions and do all the work. It might be expected that the difference between this festival and everyday life is the fact that women actually are recognized for what they are doing. They further contend that there is some feminist significance to the fact that the men play not only a secondary role, but a nurturing (the feeding of the Holy Family) one as well.
In the Journal of American Folklore (1998), Diane Christian, a former nun and a documentary filmmaker, takes considerable issue with the arguments in this article. She opened her own article with:
As a former sister of St. Joseph and as a documentary filmmaker who has analyzed women’s choice of religious life, I turned with interest to the article in the folklore and Feminism issue of JAF on women’s role in a St. Joseph’s Day celebration (Kay Turner and Suzanne Seriff, ” ‘Giving an Altar’: The Ideology of Reproduction in a St. Joseph’s Day Feast,” JAF 398:446-460. The article, alas, reminds me of Blake’s critique of Swedenborg in TheMarriage of Heaven and Hell: “Now hear a plain fact; Swedenborg has not written one new truth: Now hear another: he has written all the old falsehoods.”
In the article, entitled, “Not One New Truth and All the Old Falsehoods,” Christian points out that we mustn’t forget that everything about St. Joseph’s day is in celebration of a male saint. She goes on to give the opinion that:
even Mary’s maternity is a male miracle. Her life-giving power is subordinated to her son and her nurturing power is subordinated to her husband. Joseph’s true paternity in the religious tradition is centered on his nurturing of the Child; he is the patron of the family. To ignore this reorganization of female power into male is to miss the religious presentation of the ideal feminine as subordinated, as renouncing self and power for handmaidenly service. This is not just a status or hierarchical question, it is the prototype of female virtue.(101)
These very erudite discussions, while possibly thought-provoking, will not likely make any difference to either St. Joseph or his adherents, female or male. It is entirely possible that most people who enjoy and take part in St. Joseph’s Table would, after wading through the feminist arguments on both sides, consider both articles silly and completely missing the point of the whole celebration. It isn’t even that faith is not amenable to this kind of dissection. Faith doesn’t care. Do the people who make the promises, and put on the feasts care who is in charge? Are they concerned about making sociological statements? Probably not. They probably wouldn’t care even if they knew they were doing such an academic-sounding thing. It is more likely that the people who offer St. Joseph’s Table enjoy what they are doing, enjoy the sense of community this ceremony brings to them and the people who partake of it. It would also seem that they enjoy the further sense of satisfaction they achieve by helping the folks who re-create the Holy Family. Then there is ability to help some charity that the free-will offering affords. There is a strong possibility that many people enjoy the tradition of the celebration. Our world moves so fast. There is so little that seems to stay around. Our cars, our televisions, our computers — everything it seems — is obsolete almost before we get the sales contract signed or cashier gets us checked out. There is something so very, very comforting about a custom that has been around for some 500 years. It has changed and grown true, but the underlying form remains to give some sense of roots and stability.
Whatever the charm of this custom might be for any given individual, the fact is that what was, basically, a Sicilian custom to begin with, has spread far beyond the bounds of that relatively small group. That should speak to theconcept of some universal idea that lets many different groups feel good about themselves and how they conduct their lives.
Chaba, Louis and Marge — telephone interview April 9, 2004
Author unknown. “Saint Joseph’s Table 2003.” http//:francisanhackensack.tripod.com/sjhist.html (4-9-2004)
Folklore of American Holidays. 3rd ed.
Christian, Diane. “Not One New Truth and all the Old Falsehoods” Journal of American Folklore vol. 101-1988: 53-55
LaSalle parish adopts St. Joseph’s Table tradition.” Catholic Post March 17, 2002 http/ / www.cdop.org/catholic_post/post_3_17_02/news.cfm (4-9-2004)
Polish Easter Traditions*St. Joseph’s Day/Dzien Sw. Jozefa, March 19
Pastor’s letter, pg. 5, online church bulletin for the Church of St. Joachim. http://www.stjoachimchurch.org/3_04__01%20Bulletin.htm
Piatkowski, Nancy. “The St. Joseph’s Table” Buffalolore.buffalonet.org. Retrieved March 2004 (http://buffalolore.buffalonet.org/stjoseph/stjoseph.htm)
Raspa, Richard. “Italian-Americans” American Folklore Jan. 1996
Shurgin, Ann, and Griffin Robert. Ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. 2nd ed. Farmington Hills: Gale Research, 1999: 209-211
St. Joseph’s Table. Online LeRoy Pennysaver & News
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