New Orleans Traditional St. Joseph's Day Altars

Every March 19th New Orleans Catholics celebrate St. Joseph’s Day by constructing elaborate altars to honor the relief St. Joseph provided during a famine in Sicily. The tradition began in the late 1800’s when Sicilian immigrants settled in New Orleans.

St. Joseph altars, representing the Holy Trinity, are divided into three sections with a statue of St. Joseph at the head. The devout place candles, figurines, flowers, medals and other items around the alter creating a beautiful, lush and overflowing effect. Because the altars thank St. Joseph for relieving hunger, offerings of food are added to the cornucopia that anyone is welcome to feast on during the holiday.

Altars are found at local New Orleans churches, especially those with strong Italian roots, but they are also constructed in private homes, halls, Italian restaurants, and public spaces in different communities throughout the city.  Some popular places for a guaranteed look include the St. Louis Cathedral at Jackson Square and the St. Joseph Church on Tulane Avenue by the Italian Renaissance Museum. And if you happen to see a fresh green branch over a local New Orleanian's doorway, it means you’re invited to participate in the ceremony and to share the food.

Food and the "Fava" Bean
Cookies, cakes and breads, often in the form of shell fish, are common decorations for altars. Fava beans, or “lucky beans” are particularly associated with St. Joseph because they sustained the Sicilians throughout famine. Pick some up for good luck! As tradition has it, the altar is broken up on St. Joseph’s Day with a ceremony of costumed children, pretending to look for shelter, finding sustenance at the altar. Food and donations are then distributed to the public with leftovers going to the poor.

When is St. Joseph’s Day?

Saint Joseph's Day, March 19th, has been the Feast of St. Joseph in Western Christianity since the tenth century. In Colombia, St. Joseph's Day is celebrated on the Monday closest to 19 March.  In Spain, it is a regional holiday celebrated in Murcia and Valenciana in 2018. Depending on the dates of other holidays in Spain, some subdivisions may replace St. Joseph's Day with another day.  In Switzerland, this is a regional holiday celebrated in Graubünden, Lucerne, Nidwalden, Schwyz, Solothurn, Ticino, Uri and Valais.
 History of St. Joseph’s Day

Saint Joseph was the husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the foster father of Jesus. All we know about Joseph comes from the accounts of the nativity in the New Testament.  He was a tradesman, commonly he is said to have been a carpenter, but it's possible he may have been a stone worker. He was said to have been a direct descendent of David, the great king of Israel.

Since Joseph is not mentioned in any accounts of Jesus' public life, his crucifixion, or resurrection, it is thought that Joseph died before Jesus started preaching.  St. Joseph is the patron saint of the Catholic Church, unborn children, fathers, immigrants, workers, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Despite knowing so little about Joseph, he still has two feast days in the Western church. In his capacity as the patron saint of Workers, May 1 was established as the Feast of "St. Joseph the Worker" in 1955. This is seen as an attempt to counteract the social and non-religious growth of Labor Day as a worldwide holiday. St. Joseph the Worker is observed as a public holiday on May 1st in the Vatican City.

How Is St. Joseph's Day Celebrated Elsewhere?

St. Joseph's day always falls in Lent, so meals on his day are always associated with meatless dishes. In Italy a tradition is to serve food that contains bread crumbs as these represent saw dust since St. Joseph was a carpenter.

In Valencia, Spain, St. Joseph's Day is celebrated as Fallas, a city-wide celebration that lasts for five days.

Pictures: Xavier University / Unit #403 2018 St. Joseph's Day Altar
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