The penitential nature of Lent makes finding inspirational family activities somewhat difficult. Forty days is a very long time to the smaller members of the household. One bright spot in our Lenten journey is the March 19 Feast of St. Joseph. In the tradition of the St. Joseph Altars of New Orleans, we prepare our own small Altar on our dining room table in honor of St. Joseph for his feast day each year.
The St. Joseph Altar is Sicilian in origin. During a terrible famine, the people of Sicily pleaded to St. Joseph, their patron saint, for relief. St. Joseph answered their prayers, and the famine ended. In gratitude, they prepared a table with foods they had harvested. After paying homage to St. Joseph, they distributed the food to the less fortunate.
The Altar is set up in three tiers, representing the Holy Trinity. A statue of St. Joseph is placed on the top tier, usually surrounded by flowers, greenery & fruit.
No meat is prepared for the Altar. This is probably because St. Joseph’s Feast falls in the Lenten Season and also because meat was a rarity to the Sicilian peasants. Breads, cakes and cookies, baked in symbolic Christian shapes, are prepared for artistic placement on the Altar. Pastries in the shapes of monstrances, chalices, crosses, doves, lambs, fish, bibles, hearts, wreaths and palms adorn the tiers of the Altar. Symbols of St. Joseph – such as lilies, staffs, sandals, ladders, saws, hammers and nails – are also used. There is symbolism in many of the items on the Altar. Breadcrumbs represent the sawdust of St. Joseph the Carpenter. Twelve whole fish represent the apostles. Wine is symbolic of the Miracle at Cana.
The Altar is a medium of petition and thanksgiving. Petitions of the faithful are written on pieces of paper and placed in baskets on the Altar. Photos of deceased relatives & friends may decorate the Altar as well.
As with any tradition, our St. Joseph Altar has evolved and gathered life from each member of our family. Certain children have certain cookies or cakes they prepare each year. In addition to our traditional dining room table Altar, we now have the first and only interactive St. Joseph Altar on the world wide web – The Virtual St. Joseph Altar. A few adaptations have been made, but the Virtual Altar still offers many of the basics, not to mention a clean kitchen.
St. Joseph is our good friend. He has answered our prayers many times and I am confident that he will continue to do so. Viva San Giuseppe!
For more information on the St. Joseph Altar tradition visit The Virtual St. Joseph Altar.