Leave it to New Orleans to be the place where traditions are truly kept alive. In a time when many cultures only know traditions through distant memory, Sicilians have kept one vital custom year after year: St. Joseph’s Day, March 19, and specifically the tradition of building elaborate altars to honor and pray to the patron saint of Sicily.

Sal Serio of the American Italian Cultural Center is passionate about his Sicilian roots and how those roots have taken hold in this country. “New Orleans, as a city, lends itself to (upholding traditions),” he says. “All nationalities have a strong bond to their homes. It’s a wonderful thing, knowing who we are and where we came from.”

Serio is also an expert on St. Joseph’s Day and the elaborate altars built for the day. “Originally the purpose of the St. Joseph’s altars was a ‘thank you’ to St. Joseph himself,” he says. Serio says the tradition began when a drought that struck Sicily crippled the crops; that is, until St. Joseph interceded and provided food.

The custom survived the trip across the Atlantic Ocean when Sicilians immigrated to New Orleans. “They would continue to honor St. Joseph,” Serio says. “It grew to be those who had altars would ask St. Joseph to intercede with favors. They were especially prevalent during World War II.”

Traditionally, an altar includes a plethora of food: fish, vegetables, fruit, breads and cookies – everything but meat. (See sidebar for symbolism of altar items.) Serio says that families building altars traditionally can’t buy anything for it. “The homes would be obliged to go out and beg,” he says. “They would show the altar to the public a day or two before, but no one could eat from the altar until it was blessed.”

Sandra Scalise Juneau, a food writer and an expert on St. Joseph’s day traditions, says that the traditions are “something that’s dear to my heart as a native New Orleanian with a Sicilian background.

“The one thing about St. Joseph’s altars that makes them totally unique is that there are no two altars that will ever be alike,” Juneau says. “Each one is an individual expression of art. They can be as small as a little table display for a family or as elaborate as a public display as large as a full auditorium.”

Serio says that the altars, once seen almost exclusively at private homes, have expanded to churches. “In modern times, a lot of churches or specific Italian-American organizations would take up the slack. It draws more of a crowd and more donations.”

The tradition of St. Joseph’s celebrations has also expanded recently to the black community, says Serio. “I think it’s wonderful that more people are welcoming St. Joseph.”

“The thing about the St. Joseph’s tradition to me that is so precious is that it’s all about community,” says Juneau.

“There’s just no other way to describe it. It’s been called a labor of love, but it truly is more about the love than the labor. The way it has brought people together has just been astounding to witness.”

“Altar”ed states

A typical St. Joseph’s altar includes the following:

St. Joseph: A statue or image of St. Joseph himself usually sits at the head of the altar. The altar is divided into three tiers to symbolize the “Holy Family”: Joseph, Mary and Jesus.

Breads: Breads and cakes are baked in several different shapes, each representing something different. The shape of the lamb is a symbol for Jesus; a dove, the Holy Spirit; a chalice, the Eucharist; a wreath, the “crown of thorns”; and a fish, the Christian symbol of Christ. Hard-boiled eggs are sometimes baked into the bread to represent the rebirth of spring and the coming of Easter – this is called pupo con llova, or ”puppet with eggs.” A circle of bread represents everlasting love: no beginning, no end.
Breadcrumbs: a sprinkling of breadcrumbs represent sawdust, commemorating “the carpenter saint.”

Cookies: One of the most popular altar desserts is a fig cake called cuccidatta, “which can be individual, bite-sized cakes or they can be the large, lacey designs,” says Scalise Juneau.

Pignolata: “It’s a mound of fried dough that’s mounded together in caramelized sugar in the shape of pine cones, representing the ‘toys’ for the infant Jesus,” says Juneau.

Fava Beans: These “lucky beans”, right,  are what sustained Sicilians during the famine. They’re thought of as symbols of hope.

Also included are fruits and vegetables, candles, flowers and wine.

A few local altars

The New Orleans Culture Society builds an altar every year at Our Lady of the Rosary Church (1324 Moss St.), with viewing available on March 18 and 19. 

The American-Italian Cultural Center (537 S. Peters St.) will have an altar on display on March 17, 18 and 19, open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Thursday and Friday and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday. The museum also has a display-only altar as an exhibit all year.

St. Louis Cathedral (700 block of Royal Street) holds an altar in St. Anthony’s Garden, available for public viewing after Mass on St. Joseph’s Day. Distribution of food is from noon to 3 p.m.

St. Francis Xavier (444 Metairie Road, Metairie) is one of Sandra Scalise Juneau’s favorite altars: “It is spectacular – it really is.”

St. Joseph (610 Sixth St., Gretna) on the West Bank holds an altar sponsored by the church and prepared by the St. Joseph’s Women’s Club. There is usually a candlelight procession and viewing the day before St. Joseph’s Day and a solemn mass, altar blessing and meal on the 19th.

Our Lady of the Lake (312 Lafitte St., Mandeville) “is a beautiful one,” says Juneau.

Good Shepherd Parish holds an altar at St. Stephen Church (1025 Napoleon Ave.) every year.

There are still many altars held at private homes, in keeping with the original tradition. One in particular is located at 3225 N. Labarre Road in Metairie. Last year’s altar was in memory of Glenda T. Lubrano; the public viewed the altar on March 18 and enjoyed food the next day from 12:30 to 7:30 p.m.

For a complete list of St. Joseph’s altars, check the Times-Picayune Classifieds, March 18 and 19 under St. Joseph Altars heading.