May Day, last Saturday, was spent at a St. Joseph’s Day altar. I know, according to the calendar, someone got the dates wrong, but a world turned upside down has made the liturgically improbable more possible.
Two local churches – St. Angela Merici and St. Dominic – displayed their food altars on the weekend of May 1 rather than the traditional date of March 19, St. Joseph’s Feast Day. The change was facilitated, of course, by COVID-19. Because of the distancing rules, many places that usually have an altar did not display one this year; some for the second successive year. May 1 became an acceptable substitute day because of—and this will surprise you– Communism. Yes, my fellow workers of the world, “the reds” are still occasionally a factor in our lives. Moscow historically celebrated “May Day” to honor workers. That’s when the politburo would stage an endless parade filled with rockets and tanks likely intended to scare the bejeezus out of the rest of the world.
According to local cultural observer Maria K. Chetta, in 1955 Pope Pius XII, as a counter-measure to the militaristic May Day, proclaimed May 1 to be the “Feast Day of Joseph the Worker.” The church had historically linked Joseph as the patron of the laborer. With Pius’ proclamation the saint got a special Feast Day to celebrate.
So, two sides of the geo-political world honored their workers quite differently: one with cannons and the other with cakes. As icons go, the statue of Joseph, holding the Christ infant, is certainly more compassionate than that of the angry Lenin.
Altars come in varying sizes and degrees of ambition. The St. Angela Merici effort was spectacular, taking up the whole side of a gym. This was a study of the Sicilian traditions: Symbolism abounded with a meaning attached to practically every item; Fava beans, which are always present at an altar represent the crop that fed Sicilians during a famine. Pupa Cu L’Ova, consisting of dyed eggs baked into a dough, symbolize birth. Breads baked in the shape of ladders, saws, hammers and nails represented Joseph’s carpentry tools.
A man in black arrived to view the altar though I am not sure he got to see much. People quickly gathered around him and he was frequently stopped to pose for group pictures. As Archbishop, Gregory Aymond has faced some tough times; including having been diagnosed with COVID early in the saga. But this was his moment: the crowd was friendly; the altar was enriched by the fragrant bouquet of Italian cooking; plus, the music of the old country flowed from heaven, or was it from the loudspeakers? For the shepherd visiting his flock, this was a star moment.
I give special cultural importance to St. Joseph Day altars as experienced in New Orleans because of my hunch about this city’s unique role in preserving the tradition:
In Sicily there is little interest, or reaction, in speaking of the altars. Like so many ethnic traditions, the old world customs are better observed by the descendants of those who left, who want to maintain a link with their family’s heritage. Largely because of agricultural opportunities, Louisiana had the largest percentage of Sicilian migrants to this country.
Meanwhile the old country is not always concerned with the past and is more challenged with the present. We know that there are St. Joseph altars built in the New York area as well as California, but overall New Orleans is the global epicenter for protecting this tradition. If the custom survives for the world to appreciate, it will be because of New Orleans’ commitment.
What happened on May Day at St. Angela Merici was an important step along that path.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.
WATCH INFORMED SOURCES, FRIDAYS AT 7 P.M., REPEATED AT 9:30 A.M. SUNDAYS.WYES-TV, CH. 12.