This week, elaborately decorated altars dedicated to St. Joseph will go up around the metro area, linking Louisiana’s Italian Catholics with a worldwide diaspora of Sicilians celebrating the Feast of St. Joseph. Erected in thanksgiving and remembrance of St. Joseph’s deliverance of Sicily from famine during the Middle Ages, the altars overflow with symbolic flowers and foods: “St. Lucy’s eye” fig pies, staff-shaped breads, cakes shaped like lambs, crosses, or bibles, sesame, fig, and anise cookies, fruit, fish dishes, nuts, pasta, wine, and candies. An altar is typically decorated for a two or three day viewing period, then it is “broken” and the edible items are shared with visitors.
Some altar organizers still re-enact the “tupa-tupa”, in which children costumed as the Holy Family knock on doors, seeking food and shelter and are symbolically rejected twice. At the third knock, they are welcomed, fed, and food is subsequently shared with visitors. Every visitor makes a donation (usually food or money) and leaves with a goodie bag containing cookies, a piece of blessed bread, a prayer card, and a blessed, dried fava bean.
(Local folklore holds that the fava bean carried in a wallet or pocket ensures it will never be found empty. Ditto for the lucky bean stashed in the pantry or kitchen cabinet. And the blessed bread? Put it in the freezer or someplace safe. Cast into the wind, it is supposed to calm a storm. So it might come in handy during hurricane season.)
The most elaborately decorated altars are found in Catholic churches with strong Italian-American connections, though the altar-making tradition is upheld by many non-Italians in south Louisiana. Altars sometimes grace businesses, restaurants, nursing homes, Catholic schools, funeral homes, non-Catholic churches, and even the Ozanam Inn. A few families still hold to the home altar tradition, popular in past decades, seeking St. Joseph’s intercession for illness or other difficult circumstances. Here’s WWL’s 2011 list of St. Joseph’s altars in the New Orleans area, including several altars in private homes.
Can’t make it to a St. Joseph’s altar in person? Visit the Virtual St. Joseph’s Altar online, complete with goodie bags.