The course of tradition is never straight. That may be especially true here, where we have a tendency to encounter a ritual in a bar, buy it a drink, get in a fight with it, then guiltily drag its bludgeoned carcass home with us, where we resuscitate it and it becomes our own in its convalescence. So it is, for example, with St. Patrick’s and St. Joseph’s days in the United States in general and New Orleans in particular.
Several St. Patty’s traditions have gone rather far afield, while some remain a little truer to the original spirit of the holiday. St. Alphonsus Parish/St. Mary’s Assumption Church, for example, hosts a special Mass for St. Patrick’s Day. But other staples of the holiday bear a bit more explaining in terms of how they pertain to Ireland’s patron saint (who’s actually only one of three).
Everybody knows to wear green, for example, and to pinch people who forget to do so. This is, however, an entirely American development. Green in Ireland, despite being a part of the national tricolor, is sometimes considered unlucky, as it’s favored by the “Good People” (fairies) who, according to legend, kidnap humans who wear too much of it. The color most closely associated with St. Patrick is blue – specifically, light blue – and his flag is a red “saltire” (X-shaped cross) on a white field. Some scholars assert that the flag is a contrivance of the U.K., but we might be able to forgive its heritage since Patrick himself was born in Britain before being kidnapped and sold into slavery in Ireland as a teenager. He escaped back across the channel years later, entered the Catholic Church and returned to Ireland as a missionary. (The old myth about banishing serpents has very little supporting evidence.)
The tradition of wearing green (and drinking green beer and dyeing rivers green) grew in the United States since the mid-19th century and makes a simplistic sort of sense. Ireland is the “Emerald Isle,” and legend has it that St. Patrick used shamrocks to teach the Irish about the “holy trinity.” Just don’t wear King William III’s orange – lest you risk getting kicked in the Blarney Stones.
Irish-Americans in many major cities began parading as a way of demonstrating communal solidarity in an era when they generally filled laborious low-wage jobs. Here in New Orleans, the Irish Channel St. Patrick’s Day Club runs a yearly parade on the Saturday closest to the feast day itself, established on March 17, the commonly accepted date of the Saint’s death. “The parade is mainly about the Irish Channel,” says club president Richard “Dick” Burke Jr., whose father (Dick Sr.) and uncle Paul Burke began operating the parade in the 1940s with the help of a local pastor, Father Drudy. “People love to come to the parade. It’s people-friendly.”
According to Burke, the club consists of roughly 1,200 members and will have 30 floats this year, but that’s by no means the extent of the parade. “I guess we might have about 5,000 people total marching in the parade,” Burke predicts. “Groups come in from New York and Chicago.”
Leading up to the big day, there will be a practice parade through the French Quarter, to be held on March 9 this year. “About 400 guys participate in that,” says Burke. “It’s amazing when the tourists see 400 guys marching with the mobile port-o-let units.” Burke says the club also hosts events throughout the year (excluding the summer months) to raise funds for St. Michael’s Special School and area non-profit organizations, and will host a block party on the Thursday before the parade, March 15, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the playground at Annunciation Square.
“Everyone who used to live in the neighborhood comes back just to see old friends,” says Burke. “It’s about the people. People love to come out to the parade because it’s people-friendly, and to catch cabbage – and beads, naturally.”
The cabbage that marchers chuck to the crowd is emblematic of corned beef and cabbage. The beef in the dish gained popularity as a matter of necessity; the standard preparation would have called for bacon, but in the late 1800s, working-class Irish-Americans opted for the less-expensive cured brisket. Even the bacon would not have been the smoked pork belly with which we’re familiar, but leaner pork loin cured in brine.
Food is also integral to the Feast of St. Joseph – and is in fact the whole reason for having it. According to Sicilian tradition, the island was plagued by famine. The people prayed to St. Joseph the Worker, stepfather of Christianity (husband to Mary) and patron saint of Sicily, promising that when the famine broke they would celebrate with feasts in his honor. When the famine ended, the tradition of building altars to Saint Joseph – three-tiered, representing the “holy trinity” – and holding celebratory feasts began.
Whereas St. Patrick’s Day has traditionally represented a temporary reprieve from Lenten prohibitions on meat (and in stricter interpretations, drinking) for the Irish and Irish-Americans, Sicilian transplants will typically build their celebration in keeping with the tenets of the Catholic season of self-deprivation, eschewing meat in favor of fish, special breads and cookies and “lucky” fava beans, which marchers in the Italian-American Marching Club will throw to onlookers during this year’s St. Joseph’s Day parade, scheduled for March 10 so as not to conflict with the St. Patrick’s Day parade. (The parade usually runs on the Saturday before St. Joseph’s day, fixed on March 19.)
“We have them blessed,” says club board member Anthony Russo. “For Sicilians they’re lucky beans. During the famine in Sicily, the only crop that grew and was able to break the famine was the fava bean.” One of the parade’s 12 floats will be a stylized St. Joseph’s altar, decorated with the lucky beans and traditional victuals. “It’s the only mobile St. Joseph’s altar that I know of,” says Russo. “Years ago there used to be several of them in the French Quarter and we would stop and say prayers, but there are no longer any altars in the French Quarter that we know about.”
This year the parade will incorporate marching units, bands from out of state and, for the first time, the 610 Stompers, who will lead the parade around the French Quarter.
In advance of the parade, the club indulges New Orleans’ other fixation: dining. “On the Friday before the parade we celebrate St. Joseph by having the world’s largest bowl of pasta,” says Russo. The 10-foot bowl of pasta con sarde – accompanied, of course, by wine – is available to anyone who feels like stopping by the New Orleans Hilton Riverside at 2 Poydras St.
“New Orleans has a large Italian-American population, and 95 percent of them are of Sicilian heritage,” says Russo. “It has the same climate, the same weather, the same type of soil for growing crops.” He clarifies that while Italian-Americans in the Northeast and elsewhere favor Columbus Day, St. Joseph’s Day is distinctly Sicilian.
Where to Watch
The St. Joseph’s Day parade rolls at 6 p.m. on March 10, snaking through the French Quarter along Chartres, Royal and Bourbon streets. Keep your eyes peeled for grand marshals Michael Badalucco (“The Practice,” “Boardwalk Empire,” O Brother, Where Art Thou) and Vincent Pastore (Revolver, Good Fellas, “The Sopranos”).
The big parade for St. Patrick’s Day marches at noon on March 17 in a simple rectangle from Jackson Avenue and Magazine Street to Louisiana Avenue, then to St. Charles Avenue, then back east on St. Charles Avenue to Jackson Avenue and down Jackson Avenue back to Magazine Street. Grand marshals this year are Tommy Powell and recent Saints hall-of-famer Glennon “Silky” Powell.
Although New Orleanians of Irish and Italian heritage retain their own traditions and march in their own parades, they come together in the Louisiana Irish-Italian Parade, which rolls this year at noon on March 18, which also happens to be Super Sunday. The tuxedoed gentlemen will march along Veterans Memorial Boulevard between Clearview Shopping Center and Severn Avenue, then up Severn to 17th Street, then back the same way.
Super Sunday, left, held the Sunday before St. Joseph’s Day (March 18 this year), marks the first appearance of the Mardi Gras Indians after Mardi Gras Day. Uptown, the Indians march along Lasalle Street and Simon Bolivar Avenue, up Martin Luther King Boulevard and finally into Taylor Park. The downtown tribes march along Bayou St. John and Esplanade Avenue.