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Giving Thanks

The St. Joseph’s Day Altar tradition

Home altars, like this one from 1960, were decorated with candles, flowers, foil, crêpe paper, statues of saints, wine and, most impressively, the food: bread baked into shapes representing Joseph (his beard, staff and hammer), pupi con l’uovo (bread shaped like a basket and cooked with dyed eggs set into it), stuffed artichokes, myriad vegetables, pasta Milanese, frittatas, lots of seafood (many included 12 whole fried trout to represent the 12 apostles) and cookies (anise and sesame seed are the most traditional). Some of the most eye-catching items are the fig cakes, which are, like the bread, sculpted into various religious symbols (sacred hearts, chalices, etc.) with fig filling adding artistic flairs. This altar also has a book-shaped portrait cake with an image of the Holy Family on it.

Photo provided courtesy of the Louisiana Division of the New Orleans Public Library

Sicilian immigrants started arriving in New Orleans in the late 1800s, bringing many customs and traditions with them. One in particular has had a lasting impact on New Orleans: the St. Joseph’s Day Altar.

Started as a way to give thanks to St. Joseph after relief from famine and drought in Sicily, this centuries-old tradition presents the best of the harvest on an altar on St. Joseph’s Day, March 19, in recognition of blessings granted.

Private homes built altars, some of them very elaborate, and had them blessed by priests. Advertisements in newspapers starting in the early 1900s gave notice of these altars, inviting strangers into private homes to partake in the tradition. Many of these homes were located in the lower French Quarter, but also in Kenner and Algiers. Palm fronds on front doors also notified priests and pilgrims to which homes had altars.

Visitors would leave with bags filled with pieces of bread (said to protect the holder from bad weather), medals of St. Joseph, cookies and lucky dried fava beans (to ensure the holder would not go hungry or poor).

Leftover food and monetary donations were given to the poor, often through the church or other charitable organizations.

Visiting altars was also used by some as paths to wish fulfillment. In 1943, one woman claimed that making the same wish at nine different altars in the same day would result in that wish being granted. Another claim was that an unmarried woman who secretly steals a lemon from an altar will soon get a husband.

Altars were also hosted in commercial establishments (Angelo Brocato’s and other Italian restaurants), churches and even at the Delgado Museum of Art, where it was first presented in 1965 in front of a previously undisplayed 18th century painting of St. Joseph.

Today, altars are still held in private homes, but have also sprung up in less traditional places, such as bars, hotels and Rouses grocery stores.

 

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