In an online article posted by St. Francis of Assisi Roman Catholic Church, St. Joseph is described as: "...the husband of the Virgin Mary and the adoptive father of Jesus Christ. He is the Patron Saint of fathers, families, house hunters, carpenters, workers, of Canada, of Peru, of social justice and of a happy death."
Joseph is also honored as the patron saint of the poor and desperate and it is in this role we find the custom of St. Joseph's Table, which is an elaborate, meatless and literal feast. St. Joseph, in his many protector roles, is primarily honored in ethnic groups which follow Catholicism, although his day, March 19th is also recognized in the liturgical calendar of the Episcopalian church. The groups that celebrate with a St. Joseph's Table include Sicilians, Italians, in general, Poles and occasionally Irish. Apparently, just being Catholic doesn't necessarily include following the tradition of St. Joseph's Table.
In a phone interview with family acquaintances, Mr. And Mrs. Louis Chaba, who are Hungarian, it was noted that while there had never been that kind of celebration at either St. Elizabeth's (a Hungarian church their families had founded in Buffalo's Black Rock section) or at Blessed Sacrament, (where they currently attend) they had heard about the custom. One evening, when they were at dinner at an Italian restaurant, with an elderly Sicilian friend of theirs, the owner came over to invite them all to a Table the restaurant was putting on that year. As is the usual manner of the custom, they were invited to partake as much as they wanted and asked only to make whatever free-will offering they could afford. For the truly poor, nothing is expected except gratitude shown, in some way, to the saint. This idea of caring for the poor was very important in the years of greatest migration according to an article in the January 1996 edition of American Folklore. The author, Richard Raspa contrasts two different periods of migration this way:
Until 1880 almost all immigrants were from the richer, industrialized northern provinces -- Liguria, Lombardy, and Piedmont -- attracted, for the most part by the opportunities in the West. Among the immigrants were skilled craftsmen, small businessmen, as well as farmers, who brought their folk beliefs and customs and adapted them to the new environment. While they came as families and individuals, in general there were not enough of them to support a Little Italy...After 1880, 80% of the immigrants were from the poorer, agrarian regions of south Italy...Almost all were contadini (peasants)....the majority were sharecroppers and day laborers who saw themselves as no more than beasts, like mules or bison. They cursed the land that caused their families to live on the edge of starvation. What pushed more than 15,000 immigrants a day to America some years was the culmination of natural and social calamities in south Italy that smothered the peasants will to continue
It is this later group of immigrants who brought and cherished the veneration of St. Joseph. They understood the hard times that would make such a champion more than pleasant. He would be necessary where there seemed no other hope. Also, there was a relationship with the saints, that people felt they couldn't have with God. God was remote, unapproachable. Saints were local, close by. They were approachable to the point that, "...often the saint would be punished if a request was not answered in what was thought to be a reasonable time. Punishment would be the public cursing of the statue or relic...dunking it in water or placing it upside down in a cabinet until the favor was received." (Piatkowski)
In the course of this research, it was also discovered that there are Catholic parishes that hold St. Joseph's Table as a way of celebrating community, togetherness, and blessings in general.
The custom of St. Joseph's Table began in Sicily during the Middle Ages. An article in the LeRoy Pennysaver and News states:
The story has it that there was a sever drought in Sicily and the rich crop farmers were about to lose large amounts of money because of the poor crop. They prayed to St. Joseph to intercede for rain. The rains came and the crop that was harvested was not only good but plentiful. In thanksgiving the wealthy landowners prepared a feast which they served to their poor farmhands and their families.
There is a variation on the story collected by Piatkowski at the St. Joseph's (Buffalo) RC church Table:
The fishermen had been having very bad luck in catching fish. There were none in the sea. The sea was empty. The fishermen promised St., Joseph that if he gave them fish they would make a feast for all the people of the village. They caught a great amount of fish and fulfilled their promise by having a feast in the village square. Because the first Table was done by fishermen, this is why fish, not meat is always served at the Table.
This is one explanation of why the feast is meatless. The other reason given for focusing on fish, breads, vegetables and pastas is because St. Joseph's day falls in Lent.
The custom was brought to the United States in the migrations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although the custom is best known among Sicilians it is also recognized in some Polish communities such as those in Chicago and Milwaukee.
Generally, the sequence of events begins with some great need: Healing, a job, protection for a loved one serving in a war. The promise is made that the Table will be performed if the request is granted.
An altar is set up in the home, weeks are spent in preparing all the decorations and days are spent doing the cooking. Some altars are done completely by one family but it is also very common for the St. Joseph Table to be put on by a church, a restaurant or an ethnic social club.
There are different customs surrounding the Table. In the New Jersey area, these customs include nothing red included in the decorations. The online newsletter of St. Francis of Assisi Roman Catholic church in Hackensack states that, "...table should be suitably decorated with linens and flowers. The colors should be white, yellow and green. (THERE SHOULD BE NO RED AT ALL ON THE TABLE.) (Emphasis is in the write-up) Even the sauce for the Milanese is not red..."
There is an explanation of the elements of the table such as white and yellow symbolizing, "... The graces necessary for a good life. Oranges and lemons symbolize riches or the means to get our temporal needs met."
There is no explanation of why there should be no red and actually according to an online article about Polish Easter traditions in the Chicago area, red is a part of the Table decorating scheme because there is red in the Polish and Sicilian flags. This article explains the original American importance of the St. Joseph day celebration in Chicago as partly religious and partly political.
While Poles most certainly honor and revere St. Joseph, in American Polonia, these values have flourished in interesting and hybrid ways. Especially in the earlier waves of immigration (1890s-1930s), Polish and Italian immigrants were faced with an American Catholic church hierarchy controlled largely by Irish clergy, most often unsympathetic to the newcomers whom they often regarded as inferior, primitive, overly demonstrative and superstitious.
The city of Chicago responded to this Irish "domination" with a huge parade and turning the Chicago River green. The Polish and Italians responded with a redefined St. Joseph's Day -- which of course -- is just two days later. In answer to the "wearin' of the green," Poles and Italians wore red.
This writer goes on to say: Having formed our identity in the cauldron of Chicago and Milwaukee's parochial schools, our Polish-American family celebrates St. Joseph's Day with a St. Joseph's Table in our home, which is decorated with red and white for the saint and for Poland...Our American Polskosc (Polishness) requires zepole from Il Giardino Bakery on Harlem Avenue in Chicago as well as Sicilian St. Joseph's pasta (meatless of course) alongside the pierogi and makowiec (Poppy Seed Cake)!
This decided Americanization of the celebration is very obvious in Resurrection parish of LaSalle in the diocese of Peoria, Illinois. A report in the Catholic Post says, " The parish's seventh annual St. Joseph's Table celebration, held Sunday at the LaSalle Catholic School gym, gave hundreds of parishioners and guests a chance to sample foods of many ethnic and family traditions." The article goes on to say that members of the parish are invited t o contribute foods that represent their ethnic or family traditions.
There are customs that are geographical. In Louisiana, people take out classified ads inviting people into their homes. In Buffalo, they don't. After Viet Nam, it wasn't unusual to see signs on houses inviting any…