Sicilians And The Altars: New Discoveries

I found the town I have been looking for and I will reveal it here, but first let me tell you what the search was all about.

Because St. Joseph Day fell on a Sunday this year (March 19), today, Monday, March 20, is being celebrated instead – at least by the Catholic Church in New Orleans – to honor Joseph. That brings to mind some cultural discoveries from traveling in Sicily. I am not Sicilian, nor Italian, but I have long been fascinated by the local Sicilian cultural contribution. New Orleans experienced the largest Sicilian migration in the nation. One especially colorful and meaningful contribution was St. Joseph Day altars. I remember visiting my first altar as a kid, where I heard an old Sicilian grandma explain that she began building the food altars after a tiny saint appeared in her room and told her to do so. That was a hard command to turn down.

While in Sicily I was curious about the tradition and how and where it was being celebrated. To my surprise, I got mostly blank stares when I asked about it. Someone might mention hearing that a certain small village practiced the tradition, but no one was really sure. My other surprise is that St. Joseph, to whom we were told the altars were dedicated for having saved the island from famine, is not a major figure there in the pantheon of Saints. In Europe, where most of the Saints came from, it is more common for every town to have a native saint than to honor a universal figure; thus St. Rosalia is worshipped in Palermo, St. Lucy in Syracuse and St. Agatha in Catania. Joseph just doesn’t have his own town.

Then I learned something else surprising, Sicilian is a dying language in Sicily. Most of the younger generation speaks Italian rather than the language of the island. At dinner one night, with some Italian fellow-travelers from Brooklyn, I realized the truth about ethnic preservation. It survives not in the old country but in the places where the emigrants went. In the United States the language and traditions of the immigrants survives; in the old country the past is overwhelmed by modernization. The Italians from Brooklyn likely knew more about native recipes than most people in Palermo.

Which brings me back to the St. Joseph altars. I have discovered the epicenter of the tradition. It is a place called New Orleans. Though there are not as many altars as before, and their locations have gradually shifted to the suburbs, nevertheless, here is where the tradition is still practiced – sometimes for reason that are devout, occasionally as a matter of historic preservation. In this town, homage to St. Joseph has even spilled into the Black Creole community, most likely an influence of early Italian neighborhood grocery stores that were often in poor neighborhoods. Black customers would see the altars and might also relate to Joseph, a carpenter who worked with his hands. Where the tradition is practiced in spots around the country, it was mostly likely brought there by someone from New Orleans rather than Sicily.

Mid-March is always a special time in New Orleans with the celebrations by the Irish on the 17th and the Sicilians. But while the Irish’s St. Patrick’s Day parade is really an extension of Carnival, the St. Joseph tradition is spiritual and poetic. St. Joseph might have saved Sicily; but New Orleans, in its own way, saved St. Joseph.

                       — 30 —

                             ETNA’S IMPACT

       Mt. Etna is an active volcano that stands in Sicily. There was a partial eruption this week made famous by a BBC film crew that was almost wiped away by it. 

      I’ve been to Etna, not to the top but close enough to get spooked and awed by it. Where we were, the frigid surroundings looked like a lunar landscape. The scene was totally opposite from the sunny semi-tropical island at its base.

      Through the centuries, Etna has made the soil on the island very rich for growing and that has contributed to the bounty of tomatoes, olives, figs, beans and other vegetables that have seasoned Sicilian cooking, which in turn influenced the kitchens of mainland southern Italy and then the world. The fact that the eruption happened during the week of St. Joseph Day seems appropriate.  The volcano’s influence is reflected on the food altars wherever they are built. There the eruption is one of flavor.




Note: this blog is based on Errol Laborde’s annual update on local Sicilian culture.


BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s book, “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2013), is   available at local bookstores and at book websites.


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