Patron saint of fathers particularly venerated in Sicily
By Jeanne Outlaw-Cannavo
Buona Festa! Buon onomastico! These are the sounds you will hear on March 19 when Italians in Italy and across the globe celebrate La Festa di San Giuseppe. The day honors Joseph, husband to the Virgin Mary and earthly father to Jesus. There is also another celebration that day if your name is Joseph or Josephine. Family and friends will give goods wishes and presents for your “onomastico.”
An onomastico is the celebration of your “name” day. St. Joseph, St. Francis, St. Anthony, St. Anne, St. Catherine and so forth, are all celebrated name days in Italy. And while not celebrated with the same grandiose celebration of a birthday, an onomastico is an occasion for Italians to gather with family, friends to enjoy cake or pastries and often gifts as well.
St. Joseph and Father’s Day are celebrated all over Italy, but it is most venerated in the south, particularly Sicily. In fact, in Sicily, St. Joseph is considered to be the island’s patron saint. This honor bestowed on St. Joseph is accredited to his having saved Sicily’s residents during one of their many devastating droughts. Tradition has it that residents prayed to him for rain. The rain came, crops were planted, the people were saved, and they kept their word to honor him in perpetuity as one of two patron saints, the other being St. Agata, and to commemorate an annual Feast Day in his honor.
It is said that this springtime “miracle” is the reason the celebration is held in March and is commemorated every year with la Tavola di San Giuseppe, the St. Joseph’s Table. The table is filled with gifts, both food and sentimental ones, offered to the saint in thanksgiving for prayers answered. Generally, a statue of St. Joseph is placed at the head of the table which is surrounded by offerings of various foods, lemons, and of course, breads. On St. Joseph’s feast day, an open house is held, inviting friends and family to join in the celebration of eating the gifts left on the table. Fava beans, one of the spared crops, represent good luck and abundance. Today, this commemorative table is still set with great pride in many households across the island. Unfortunately, in the United States and in other countries which a large number of Italian descendants, the tradition of the St. Joseph Table is less common.
It should be pointed out that while Sicilians lay claim to the origins, the Catholic Church and other Christian sects have their historical differences with the somewhat secular origins cited above. The Feast of St. Joseph is, in western Christianity, the principal feast day of St. Joseph. It is a solemn holy day in the Catholic Church but is also a feast or commemoration in the Anglican Communion, and a feast or festival in the Lutheran Church. St. Joseph’s Day is also a Patron’s Feast Day in Poland as well as Canada.
It is not only celebrated as Father’s Day in Italy but also in some other predominantly Catholic countries such as Spain and Portugal. However it is not a holy day of obligation for Catholics. Many Catholics also venerate St. Joseph as the patron saint of realtors or anyone trying to sell a home. As with many traditions, its origin is very unclear. Many devout Catholics trying to sell a home will buy a small statue of St. Joseph and bury it upside down in their yard, preferably near flowers.
During the Feast of St. Joseph, the food that is part of the feast is cloaked in tradition. Because the holiday falls during lent, meat is generally not eaten on the Feast of St. Joseph. Foods containing breadcrumbs, or the “poor man’s parmigiano” are enjoyed. The breadcrumbs may be a symbol linked to Joseph’s work as a carpenter as they resemble the sawdust left behind after a day’s work in a carpenter’s shop. Lemons, like fava beans, are said to bring good luck, particularly to the single ladies looking for a husband.
While fava beans, lemons, breads and seafood are frequently eaten on the feast day of San Giuseppe, it is the Zeppole di San Giuseppe that is the best known of the day. You can find these in any respectable Italian bakery, both in Italy and Italian bakeries across the globe. A zeppola is a pastry, almost resembling a cream puff, but fried. After it is fried, the zeppola is cut in the middle and filled with various flavored creams or sweetened ricotta.
It’s frequently topped with amarena, a sour cherry preserve, and dusted with confectionary sugar. Delicious by itself or enjoyed with a cup of espresso, if you do nothing else this Saint Joseph’s Day, be sure to enjoy a zeppola in honor of San Giuseppe and celebrate the day in a very sweet way.