At the Altar
ARTHUR NEAD Illustration
From the first St. Joseph’s Day altar I ever attended as a kid, I recall an elderly Sicilian lady who explained why she built the altar. One night she saw the apparition of St. Joseph. “He was very small,” she said. He appeared on her chest of drawers. “The saint asked me to build the altar.” That was not a request that could easily be turned down.
Quite often the altars, which consist of foods displayed in a decorative way, including cookies, pastas, a fish (never meat) and the ever-popular lamb-shaped cake (with coconut icing as its wool), were built in response to a favor asked. (In the case of the woman there was illness in her family.) Sometimes it was just a tradition from the old country being carried out.
I have been fascinated with the altars, especially since realizing that New Orleans is probably the global epicenter for preserving the tradition. Not even in Sicily, where the custom began, is the practice as popular. There is a certain truth about ethnic mobilization: the old customs survive better in the new country as an act of cultural preservation. Meanwhile, in the old country, the next generation is less interested in the past. (There are probably more oom-pah pah bands per capita in the United States than in Germany.) St. Joseph altars are a vague memory in Sicily where every town has its own saint who is closer to the people than Joseph. He is given credit for saving the island from a famine, but he was never a local.
Through the years I have visited many altars, including one for a woman who wanted to have a child and built an altar as an offering. After several years, she became pregnant and delivered a son on St. Joseph Day. There could be no question what his name would be.
Cuccidati, the famous Italian fig cookie, is always a fixture on an altar, though sometimes there are variations. I once visited an altar built on a budget where there was a pack of Fig Newtons, and for the fish dish there was a can of tuna.
New Orleans’ classic shotgun houses were a usual setting for altars in the earlier days. Many Italian families lived in half of the house, with the front room being overtaken by the altar. The altars were open to the public on the day before Joseph Day. On the day itself there would be a dinner featuring some of the altar items.
As the Sicilian population assimilated, so too did the altar location change. In recent years it has been more common to see altars in suburban garages or in home dens. The Sicilian grandmas who were the driving force behind the altars are fewer. Now they are more of a family enterprise. Increasingly the altars are becoming more institutionalized; located in a church or school where making the altars is a community affair.
Some customs remain intact. The Times-Picayune still has an altar section in its classified pages during the days before, and the custom of having a palm leaf outside the front door to indicate that the altar is open for visits remains. Leave a small donation and you will still get a bag with a few cookies inside plus a prayer card and some fava beans intended to bring special luck. There are still creatively designed breads, frequently shaped like a crucifix or a shepherd’s crook.
During the early days of immigration, several Sicilians opened neighborhood groceries. They were usually in poor neighborhoods where some of the clientele were black. From that came an intermingling of Sicilian tradition with the local black culture that also felt a connection with Joseph as the patron saint of workers. The Mardi Gras Indians would traditionally make their second appearance of the year on St. Joseph Day. (Now the dancing is more commonly moved to a near weekend and called “Super Sunday.”)
On the St. Joseph Day after Katrina we were searching to see if the altar tradition had survived. From the newspaper listing we headed to Gentilly. To my surprise a palm leaf was attached to the door of a FEMA trailer. Inside was a delightful black Creole woman who invited us to see her creation. There could not be anything more spiritually multi-cultural, and sweet, than this. At one of the city’s darkest moments the search for a St. Joseph altar provided hope that the city still had a prayer.